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A pimp and a preacher are remarkably similar. Both require charisma, and both involve persuasion and guiding people to do things they might not ordinarily do. Both, in short, are hustlers. And both get to wear lots of bling—at least depending on the denomination. So maybe it made sense that Don “Magic” Juan Campbell, the legendary pimp from Austin (and founder of the annual pimp gathering, the Players Ball), would find Jesus and become known to the world as Bishop Don “Magic” Juan Campbell.
Campbell first appeared in the pages of the Reader in a 1994 Our Town column. He was the pastor of the nondenominational Magic World Christian Kingdom Church, and he’d just published his autobiography (cowritten with his sister Ann Bromfield) From Pimp Stick to Pulpit: The Life Story of Don “Magic” Juan. Jeffrey Felshman hung out with him during a book signing at Heritage Books and Music in Edgewater. He’d driven there in his money green Cadillac and, Felshman writes, he was “resplendent in a suit of many colors—jacket and pants with stripes in hues of green and yellow, and yellow socks and shoes. His jewelry catches the light and rarely lets go. . . . Dangling from a thick golden rope is a giant gold, jewel-studded crucifix that stretches approximately from breast to navel.”
At that point, Campbell hadn’t pimped for nearly a decade, but he assured Felshman that he’d undergone a complete inner transformation. He’d discovered God abruptly early one morning in after a long night drinking Champale and smoking PCP and weed. He saw the light come in.
“God revealed to me that it was him breaking into my life. I called the girls the next day and I told them, ‘That’s it. You don’t have to give me money anymore. I’ve been called by God.’ The girls didn’t understand. They cried, ‘Why didn’t God take somebody else?’ I told them they could come in the church with me. They followed me, most of them did. But most of them didn’t have the same feeling. They tried, but it hadn’t happened to them. So some of them left.”
By the time the Reader caught up to Campbell again in 2000, he’d moved to L.A. to pursue a career in show business and had just appeared as himself in the documentary American Pimp; he’d returned to Chicago for his 49th birthday party, which turned into an epic all-nighter attended by players, pimps, DJs, and rappers. He was still blinged out in his favorite colors, green (for money) and gold (for honey). Reporter Dave Hoekstra took a more skeptical view of the preacher. He spent time with Campbell and visited his mother and sister, who still lived in Austin. He visited Leonard Rascher, who had taught Campbell at the Moody Bible Institute night school. After Campbell opened his own storefront church, the Magic World Christian Kingdom Church of the Royal Family, in South Austin, Rascher came every week to lead Bible study.
“He paid the rent for the church out of his own pocket,” says Rascher. “He sold the cars and got rid of most of his jewelry to pay the rent.” According to Rascher, Campbell was best known for conducting funerals for casualties of drugs and gang warfare on the west side. “They were people who didn’t have a church connection. They turned to him.”
Rascher concedes that Campbell’s flashy lifestyle seems to conflict with his pursuit of God. “The Bishop answers in two ways: he gave up women, alcohol, and drugs because the Lord told him to. And if the Lord told him to give up the fancy clothes, he would. But the Lord didn’t tell him to. The other answer is that if he had gotten rid of all the cars and jewelry, people would say the only reason he turned to Christianity was because he lost it all. He wanted to show them you can be a Christian not just because you bottomed out.”
In 1993, Campbell closed the church, preferring to do God’s work “in the field”; he now considers himself a street minister. He and Rascher were briefly reunited last month when Campbell attended Rascher’s retirement luncheon. “I was never skeptical about this until recent years,” says Rascher. “I know he’s done things that to me would be very questionable. He goes on the Mancow program, which is questionable for someone that has a Christian testimony. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk. I told him I was glad he came. He had his green suit on, but that’s him. That’s OK….My peers or colleagues? Some said I was foolish to get involved with him. Others believe like I, that when Jesus died for the world, that included people like him.”
Hoekstra talked to Congressman Danny Davis, another friend of Campbell’s and who once defeated him in an aldermanic race. “Naturally we try to steer young people to a different mind-set,” Davis said, but he acknowledged Campbell’s appeal in the neighborhood.
As for Campbell:
“I don’t worry what people say. The church is in my heart every day. The Bible teaches us we are the church and Jesus is the head. God showed me He had all the power. I tell people what God has done even with all this jewelry on…. It’s their decision to believe or not. People say, ‘He was a pimp.’ There’s a lot of unbelief. It’s hard to work a lot of miracles when there’s unbelief.” The siren of a passing ambulance nearly drowned him out. “You’re standing in my pulpit right now.”
Since then, Campbell has continued in show business. He’s appeared as himself on Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and GGN: Snoop Dogg’s Double G News Network and as “Bishop Don Juan” on Black-ish and was featured on by Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa’s 2011 song “Talent Show.” He is also Gina Gershon’s spiritual advisor. Oh, and he’s on Twitter. He’s had quite a life.