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This is Meryl Sachs interview for the Teaneck Oral History Project. I am about to speak with Fr. Bruce Bramlett, the spiritual leader of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Teaneck, NJ. The date is April 25, 1984. The time is 4:05 pm and we are speaking in Fr. Bramlett's study and I think we will begin.
(I) I think a good place to start this interview would be to discuss, if you don't mind, your early years. Would you tell me please where you were born and where your spent your very earliest years and then we will go on to the next phase.
(N) OK. I was born in 1948 in Middletown, CT, which was my mother's family home. I was raised for the early years while my father was in Korea in New York City. My father came home from Korea when I was three and we moved to Tennessee, Memphis, which was his home and I lived in Memphis from that time on until I was 12. At age 12, my parents broke up, they were divorced, my mother moved back to New York City with my grandparents and I came, of course, with her and I spent the rest of my time in New York. Went to Brooklyn Technical High School and was going to be an architect. Decided though that I really was going to be a very poor architect, I couldn't add one and one, so went into liberal arts and went to college in Central College in Pela, Iowa. Though I had come out of a very fundamentalist Christian background, my father being a lay preacher in the Fundamentalist Church of Christ in the south, when I came north, I got involved in the youth group in a local congregation which happened to be a Reformed Church in America, Dutch Reformed Community Church, and it was from there that I began my involvement with the reformed church. Went to a reformed church college in Central College in Pela, Iowa, majored in Psych and Soch and was heavily involved in religion.
(I) Boy, can you summarize quickly. I'd like to go back a bit. Would you tell me about the role of your parents to you while you were still very young and while you, let us say, were in Memphis, when your parents were still together. I'd like to know if in any way either or both influenced you and also perhaps you can tell us what your father's role was in terms of determining your future religious life.
(N) Well that's a question that probably would be best dealt with by a psychiatrist because I'm, certainly my father and my mother held pretty important places for me in very, very different ways. I certainly grew up because of my father's strong fundamentalist almost fanatical Christianity. I grew up with Christianity coming out my ears. I was in church in my early life more than I was at home. We went to church in the morning on Sunday, we were in church on the afternoon with hymn sings and various programs and then we would go back to church on Sunday evening and then be back in the middle of the week on Wednesdays for Bible studies and prayer groups. What that provided me was a tremendously strong sense of the Bible from old all the way through to the new testament. I can to this day quote scripture fairly quickly and fairly easily. So my father gave me a really strong sense of religious identity. I think from my mother's side of the family, my grandfather was a New York City policeman and probably one of the most moral men I've ever met in my life. Very strong and stringent and strict in a very different kind of way. Religious but not religious in an overt way, never goes to church at all, to this day he doesn't go to church. I think once in a while he'll come when I'm doing something special but he, it is not an important place in his life, though religion is and his faith is. But he is very moralistic. Extremely so.
(I) Could you explain that a little more? What precisely do you mean by his being moralistic in terms of influence on you, was there any. .
(N) OK. Yeah. I think he gave me a very strong sense of right and wrong. Almost too strong a sense. You know things in his life were either right because that's the way they were or they were absolutely wrong and that's the way it was. I think what that did was give me a very strong sense of the moral tone to life that everything really does take on moral aspects. What I think modified all of that and what began to change some of that and use some of those building blocks in constructive ways, or what I would think was constructive ways, I hope are constructive ways at this point in my life, was the influence that this reformed church minister had on my life when I began to be involved with the youth group there and his work. My pastor when I was growing up, when I came back to New York, was a guy named Charlie Botkin and Charlie had grown up in the south as well in a fundamentalist home, had gone to Movie Bible Institute, but he himself had made his own transitions and become a very well educated mainline church pastor in the Reformed Church in America.
(I) What does that mean, a mainline church pastor?
(N) OK, he had become a part of what we call mainline Christianity, that is the traditional streams of Christianity that have come out of the common faith. He wasn't a part of a sectarian group. The Reformed Church is part of the great reformation tradition from John Calvin and Charlie Botkin was a very strong civil rights advocate when I knew him and this was in the early 1960s and the neighborhood in which I lived was one of those neighborhoods in Queens which was undergoing massive racial change at the time and it was a time when kids were in the streets beating each other up with chains and bricks and bats and when people were lighting crosses on other people's lawns and it was an ugly time. My pastor was one of those people who took the civil rights movement and his Christianity very seriously and what he did was he began to turn me, turn that moralism of my grandfather into a very powerful direction of civil rights, of integration, of the black struggle for freedom and I became very identified with him. It is interesting. I remember when I, we first met, that he and I would sit down and have these long theological arguments in which we would quote scripture at one another because of course he could quote it as well as I could and after I decided I couldn't win that battle, he became my best friend.
(I) What were your arguments about?
(N) We were, they were of course about whether he understood the scripture correctly. As we were talking about earlier, Christian fanatics tend to believe that nobody can be right except themselves and that was something with which I had grown up.
(I) I was just going to ask you, at that point, would you say now in retrospect that you were, you would consider yourself then as having been a so-called fanatic?
(N) Oh sure. I mean my father gave me that heritage. I mean there was no one who understood the scriptures or the tradition or whatever more correctly than my father and anybody who disagreed with him, of course, was wrong, and I inherited much of that.
(I) Would you tell us again which college you went to and how you determined that you would go there and then we will go on with another question that relates to it?
(N) Surely. It was out of this reformed church background, of course, and my growing connection with my pastor who himself had gone to Central College in Iowa, in Pela, Iowa which is a Dutch Reformed College way out in the middle of the cornfields. He was the man who got me going to Central College because it was his alma mater and had given him a good education and so he was very anxious to see me go and it was with the intention, of course, that I think he secretly knew that I would always go into the ministry because I grew to have some of the same convictions that he did about the world and the way it was.
(I) Were you satisfied with your college experience?
(N) Very much. Central College is probably the best of the Protestant Reformed or the Protestant college traditions. Good strong liberal arts education in a very free environment yet with a lot of care and a lot of concern and a lot of genuine love that comes from a small campus in a place where having spent my high school years in New York City, I was always struggling of course with the best of the best to even keep my head above water academically. Graduated from Brooklyn Tech with a straight B average but then went out among the kids out in the midwest and ended up running straight A averages and being the second and third in my class.
(I) You were probably the only one in your graduating class heading for the college that you did.
(N) Exactly. Exactly. But you know it is easy to be a big fish if you are in a small pond but for me that was a very positive thing because it meant I got a lot of individual attention from my teachers, the teachers who teach at that college are there because they teach, not because they are doing research or are involved in anything else. They are there because they are committed.
(I) What were your out-of-classroom involvements on campus that you could tell me about?
(N) That's almost more numerous than the courses I took. I was never not involved in at college. I was very involved in a couple of debating societies. I was very involved in campus government. I was an associate editor of the campus newspaper. I was involved in the board of trustees of the campus church.
(I) What does that mean exactly?
(N) Well, we were the student governing body of a congregation made up of students on the campus and we ran the church as if it were a regular congregation of Christians anywhere under the guidance of the campus chaplain. It gave me my first I guess direct sense of being involved in the government of the church. I was also very involved in the peace movement at that time and coming out of my civil rights movement days and of course this was in, 1966-1970 was when I was in college.
(I) What do you mean by your involvement in terms of your life on campus? Your involvement in the civil rights movement?
(N) OK. One of the things that I remember doing very clearly was we became the campus church at Central became allied with the, at that point the Black Panthers in Des Moines, Iowa who were running food programs and educational programs in the black neighborhoods in Des Moines and we
(I) Excuse me. I am sorry, but was this a campus philosophy per se to join in a movement quite like this which for the time was very radical or was it a minority group with you as part of it?
(N) Oh sure. It was a minority group. I would have been considered the radical left wing which is hard for me to think about in terms of my life today. I mean I don't see myself as a radical anything or a left wing anything. Strangely enough, when I consider myself and have to put labels on myself, as whether I am conservative or liberal, whether I am a democrat or a republican or whatever, I see myself in the fairly conservative way. But maybe in the sense if by the word radical we mean going back to the root, I guess I see myself rooted in a biblical tradition which talks about justice and I really find my life force coming out of that conviction and that commitment so that whether it is civil rights or the peace movement or Jewish-Christian relations or whatever I am involved in in that way, the reason I do it is not political or ideological so much as it is biblical or theological. Now some people may say that it ideological and that's is OK. That's
(I) We are back to basics.
(N) Yeah. But for me it is a very important difference and for me it makes all the sense in the world in terms of keeping my own head straight.
(I) We will come back to this theme in terms of your contemporary life. Right now let's get a little more history of you in terms of your actually deciding to enter a seminary. Could you tell us when you did that and I think we know why but maybe you'd like to elaborate a little bit more on that for us.
(N) OK. Yeah. The why is there. The what happened is really very much more complex than that. Way back when I was in high school, my youth group leader one day, and I can remember it as if I were sitting with her this moment,
(I) This was at Brooklyn Tech
(N) Well no this was in my local congregation in Queens where I was living
(I) But you were a high school student at the time?
(N) Yeah. I was a high school student. I was maybe fifteen, sixteen. And I was a leader in the youth group, president of the youth group and that kind of thing, and she said to me one day out of the blue, "Did you ever think Bruce about becoming a minister" and I can remember laughing at her and telling her that she was absolutely out of her mind because I was going into other things. I was going to do other things. Unfortunately or fortunately whatever, some people would say that that was the hand of providence that she was the vehicle of providence to plant the seed and indeed it was a seed that got planted because from that point on, I have to say that my journey toward ordination was a kind of a journey of trying to get the monkey off my back. When I went to college, I got immediately very involved in Psych and in Soch, I became a Psych major and thought I would go into psychotherapy
(I) That was in Iowa
(N) Yes. At Central College. And then also became involved in Sociology and became involved in community organization work and with my civil rights work and the peace movement work, all of that seemed to point me in the direction of a Saul Olensky (?) he was kind of my idol when I was in college. The community organizer. But all the way through the religious thing was very, very strong and very powerful and connected the two. Whatever the connection was, it was always going to be I always knew that whatever I was going to do was going to come out of a Christian commitment. But it wasn't until after I graduated or until I graduated that I really decided that I needed to go to the seminary, that I wanted to get a theological education though at that point I had no intention at all of going into a parish. I saw, in fact, the parish as being the absolute worst place in which I could use my talents and skills.
(I) Why was that?
(N) Well because I always thought that, I thought the parish to be kind of dull and backward and the people there to be dumb and stupid and really not where the action was. I mean it was a really arrogant only the kind of thing that a college kid would come up with believing that they are going to save the world and I had a strong messianic conviction. But when I, what I decided to do was to go to seminary
(I) When was this, what year?
(N) 1970. And of course that was the year of Kent State, it was the year that Cambodia was bombed, it was the year that the campus went on strike and I spent my last semester in college on strike, teaching classes on peace education and in civil rights and in biblical justice. I was part of a campus alternative classroom setup.
(I) Who did you teach?
(N) Other students. So I didn't spend my time in my senior year in class very much though I managed to graduate and carry all my class load anyway which I still wonder about. The result was that I was burned out. By the time I left school in 1970, I was shot.
(I) And what did you do as a result of this?
(N) Well I went to seminary for one semester and then really decided that I couldn't hack it and dropped out. Went to work. I came to New Brunswick Seminary here in New Jersey which is a reformed church seminary. And I just needed time to recoup. I had also, during my college years, gotten married and that marriage broke up in my senior year of college so I was still reeling from that loss and trying to make sense out of all of that.
(I) Difficult time.
(N) Yeah. So 1970 wasn't my best year.
(I) I daresay it wasn't the world's either. When you came to New Brunswick and you entered a seminary there, you said that you worked also. What kind of work did you do?
(N) Yeah. I, while I was at school, while I was at college I had taken on a part time job driving school buses for the local school system taking the kids to school in the morning and bringing them home in the afternoon down the dirt roads of Iowa. That skill of course stood me in good stead when I came to seminary so down in New Brunswick, I got a job with the local bus company driving school buses and eventually began to drive their long haul charter buses so I became a bus drive.
(I) What would you say about that experience as a whole?
(N) I learned a lot.
(I) Can we talk?
(N) Yes, can we talk? I learned a lot. It's not something, it is something that I will never, I will cherish as an important experience because I learned how whole other set of people live their lives and I learned how very rough bunch of folk live with a very difficult profession.
(I) You mean drivers.
(N) Yes. The drivers. Wonderful human beings many of them. Warm and generous and gentle and kind who live with inhuman conditions and who struggle to make ends meet. I learned what it meant to be a working person and that's something I will never forget.
(I) You've taken that experience with you today in terms of your communications with people, your dealings with people?
(N) I hope so. I hope so. I mean I hope, I guess, I don't forget I came from a working class background and that really is an important fact for me.
(1) And during this period you continued with your theological vocation or you
(N) No, I quit after the first semester of seminary and went to work full time, worked for about eight months, saved up a couple of thousand dollars and took off and went to Europe and bummed around Europe for eight months.
(1) But that could be a wonderful experience. Was it?
(N) Yes, it indeed was. It was probably the loneliest experience of my life. I was still trying to figure out who I was and what I was doing and why. It was really my time to use the biblical image. It was really my time in the wilderness.
(I) How old were you during that period?
(N) I was twenty two. Twenty two. And this was really my first time really out on my own doing my thing by myself and I really was very much by myself.
(I) What impressed you especially in your wanderings, so to speak, throughout Europe and was there any other place you went to besides Europe as well. It is a twofold question, of course.
(N) I went to Russia and spent some time in Russia. That was the only place I went with a group because I really didn't have the skills to manage my way around Russia by myself. But had a good experience there. I mean, well, as good an experience as you can have in Russia.
(I) Is there any outstanding event that can enter your mind right now as being especially significant?
(N) Yeah. There were two or three different things that I remember vividly. One was that part of my time I went and spent on a kibbutz in Israel.
(I) In Israel.
(N) Europe, Russia, Israel and then I lived for two months in Vienna, two and a half months in Vienna.
(I) And all this encompassed that eight month period?
(N) Yeah. So it was a heavy duty period. It was very intense.
(I) Did you plan beforehand to go let us say to certain areas in Europe and to Russia and to Israel or did this come about spontaneously.
(N) Yes. It was spontaneous. There was really very little planning. I went, when I left here I had a one way ticket. I had a year round pass that started whenever I got it stamped in Europe. I had
(I) That was good for western Europe.
(N) That was good for western Europe. And that was all I knew. And I have some relatives in Sweden and I wanted to go and visit them and that's the only thing I knew. The rest is all ad libed. So four months of that eight months I did a lot of very hard traveling and did most of my touring in that four months. By the end of that four months, I was either ready to come home or I was ready to at least settle down someplace and that was when I went to Israel and lived on the kibbutz which was a very powerful experience for me.
(I) Would you talk about that a little bit please?
(N) Yeah. I went and was very fortunate to fall in with a gentleman who had lived on the kibbutz for years and it was a large old kibbutz Yefat, in the Jeshriel valley. And he was in charge of all of the construction on the kibbutz and he and I became fast friends and I could speak German and he could speak German so we got along well with our German and he kind of took me under his wing and I became his kibbutz son and he became my kibbutz father and they adopted me into their family and that I remember as a very rich and wonderful time. The only sad part about it was that I really wanted to stay and go onto the Alpon and learn Hebrew and at that point in time, there were just too many Jewish kids who wanted to learn Hebrew and too many immigrants from Soviet Russia who were entering the country so they couldn't let a non-Jew participate.
(I) So you were put on a wait list?
(N) I got put on a wait list which meant that I was out. Because at that point I decided to go to Vienna and by this time a friend of mine from school had come over to join me and he and I went to Vienna, got ourselves a room in one of the student hostels and I took some German courses at the local (hofschuler) and went and learned to love opera. Saw twenty three operas in about two months. It was a wonderful place to do that. And basically had a great time. You asked if there was an experience that stood out. One of the strange things that happened in my trip was the constant experience of running into people who challenged my convictions, my faith. In fact the first night that I arrived, at the hostel in London on the plane, there was a girl in the hostel, a young sixteen year old girl who was on a bicycling trip from the United States who the next morning had made an appointment to go have an abortion because she had found herself to be pregnant while on the trip and she didn't want her parents to know and I found myself going with her to the abortion clinic and sitting and waiting for her at the clinic until she came out and then going back to the hostel with her and giving her a cross that I was wearing around my neck at that point and praying with her because she was obviously distraught and very, very uptight about the whole business as well she might have been and that kind of experience continued to happen all through my trip. I just kept running across people who kept calling upon those things inside of me which unbeknownst to me were there and it just was a time when I kept, my vocation to ministry just kept coming back at me. As much as I was running away from it at that point, it just kind of kept, as I said, the monkey was still on my back. Even in Israel while on the kibbutz hanging out with the other volunteers was often an experience of that.
(I) You are a regular built in support system.
(N) Well I didn't intend it to be that way but
(I) When did you go back to school to study (END OF SIDE 1 - BEGIN SIDE 2)
(N) While I was at Union, I spent one of my two years there in a Christian commune. I got involved with them because they were involved in the peace movement at that point and I was still very active in that.
(I) What year was this?
(N) This was 1974. No, I am sorry. 73 and 74. In that second year at Union, I was still of course a member of the Reformed Church and if I was going to be ordained, it was going to be in the Reformed Church at that point but I had never been happy in the Reformed Church. It had always struck me as being very small, fairly provincial and very conservative and what happened in my second year at Union was that a friend of mine who is now a colleague of mine here in this diocese, we managed to cross paths again, it is amazing, the world is a nothing but big circles, you know. He invited me to go with him and a few of his, of our friends to go up to an Anglican monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts for Holy Week. Now Holy Week in a monastery is a very emotionally intense place. Highly charged. Very somber, very stringent but also wonderful and what happened to me in that monastery was nothing less than what I would call a conversion experience and I don't use that word lightly. I think what happened was I finally was able to unite the faith that was lodged in my head with the faith that was lodged in my guts, in my emotional life and the Anglican liturgy and the worship life and the devotional life and the prayer life all just began to come together in me and integrate in a way that I had never experienced before. So moved was I that I went back to seminary after that Holy Week experience, finished my classes and then took all of my exams and all of my papers and went and lodged myself back at the monastery where I spent the next two months just living in the monastery, trying to absorb all of that and decided that I really needed to explore what it meant to be an Episcopalian, what it meant to go into the Anglican tradition and right up the street from the monastery is, of course, an Anglican seminary, the Episcopal Divinity School so I began low and behold to make friends with one of the professors at the seminary and he introduced me to the dean and they introduced me to the director or admissions and we talked and I sat down with him and he said, 'What do you want,' and I said, 'Well, I need to find out whether I want to be an Episcopalian and I also need to find out once and for all whether I wanted to go into the ministry.' I said I've got to settle this question once and for all and get on with my life and he said, OK, the only way you can do that is to get out into an Episcopal Church and figure it out. Work in an Episcopal Church in ministry and do it. If you like it, you like it; if you don't, you don't. So I took a year and did an internship in a parish just north of Boston and it was the most wonderful experience of my life confirming and reaffirming, just wonderful. I applied then for confirmation in the Episcopal Church, decided that I indeed did want to be in the Episcopal Church, was confirmed in Boston and then proceeded to apply for ordination in the Episcopal Church. Well I didn't realize of course that it is not quite so easy in the Episcopal Church to be ordained. Being an outsider, I didn't understand the politics and was rejected and it took me then another two years to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.
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