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(I) Was there any official explanation as to why you were rejected?
(N) Oh, there are a lot of official explanations. Whether they make any sense, I am not sure. The Episcopal Church does not ordain a whole lot of people at this point. They really do a lot of weeding because we had too many priests in the Episcopalian Church. So what I found out was that getting ordained in the Episcopal Church is really a matter of persistence and I indeed did persist. It was a hard time in my life because of course coming out of the confirming experience of being in the parish and now really finally having decided what I really wanted to do, somebody wasn't going to let me do it. That was very frustrating.
(I) The fact that you found that experience very enlightening in terms of your serving in the church obviously didn't have too much of an influence on the people who had to pass on your ordination or non-ordination.
(N) Well it was like any bureaucracy. I think the church bureaucracy tends to not like people who come from out of the ordinary paths. They tend to like what is traditional, they tend to like what they can count on and what they know and understand and I think I was a little bit too strange for them to handle.
(I) Were there any experiences in the church itself when you did serve that might have thrown the officialdom off in terms of your rejection?
(N) No. I think not. Not in terms of my work as an intern. That was very, very positive. In fact, the church where I was working was up in arms over my rejection and they did everything they could possibly do to get an appeal of that. It really didn't have anything to do with that. I think it really had to do with people taking a very, looking very askance at somebody coming from as varied a tradition as I had come from, varied background. I just didn't fit the mold.
(I) Unconventional, non-establishment perhaps. Well eventually you won your battle.
(N) Yeah. I was ordained by the diocese of western Massachusetts. The bishop in western Massachusetts went to bat for me and he said, look, he said, if you can get a job in this diocese as a lay person working in a church, he said I will put you through my processor of ordination and low and behold, there was in fact a man in Williamstown Massachusetts who was looking for a person to do Christian education and to do adult work and he didn't need somebody that could, that had to be ordained right away so he and I hit it off and he gave me a job and the rest is history in terms of that I was ordained in that church and worked there for two years in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
(I) That's a beautiful town.
(N) Oh, it's a wonderful town. I had a great time there.
(I) Well eventually you came to St. Mark's in Teaneck. Were there any other steps between your experience in Williamstown and the time that you came to Teaneck that were especially important?
(N) Well I left Williamstown for a job here in New Jersey. I had been called to be an associate at a very large parish in Essex Fells here in northern New Jersey. That experience was not a very good one for me. I was very uncomfortable among the folk in Essex Fells, not that as individuals they were, they made me uncomfortable but I think my working class background kind of stood out a little bit.
(I) Is that an especially affluent area?
(N) Yeah. Essex Fells is a very affluent, very wealthy almost snob area where it just is Who's Who of American industry and
(I) Corporate church?
(N) Yeah. The church really embodied a lot of that country club kind of atmosphere and I really wasn't very comfortable there and all of my social justice kinds of issues and all of my attentions that I felt in that, in me, really came up bubbling up to the surface very quickly and I realized that I was never going to be comfortable sitting around the pool sipping my martini. That just wasn't who I was. So I came to, I was at that point, there was a church opening and my bishop here in New Jersey, Bishop Spahn (?) said that if I wanted to get out of Essex Fells, that it might be possible and that there was a church in Teaneck open. In 1979. So I in fact jumped at the chance. The church liked me and I liked them and that's when I came here in 1979.
(I) Can you describe St. Mark's to me and add whatever it is you'd like to about it and your relationship to it and its parishioners and they to you.
(N) Well here's where I think I have to be really very careful because I the sociologist in me wants to describe it in terms of a social entity, a community and looked at as an objective reality and I don't think that's very fair. Churches are more like individual human beings. They have a personality and they have a style and they have a way of being that is all their own. St. Mark's is a, was for many years, a very small somewhat I believe insular kind of church of people who were very committed to their faith but it was a faith of a very parochial kind of nature I believe. They were not involved very much in the community and certainly not involved in social issues and that sort of thing. It just wasn't a part of their lives. That's not to badmouth them; it is just to state a reality. When I arrived here, a lot of the people who had originally founded the congregation back in the 40s and 50s were now growing older, their kids had grown up in town and moved out to the suburbs leaving their parents behind who were now getting of retirement age and they were moving out to the shore or to Florida and the church had really fallen into a very low ebb when I arrived. And there weren't a lot of new folk kind of coming into the church so things did not look very good at that point for St. Mark's. The influx of new people in the community that were coming to St. Mark's were not the by and large white working folk, blue collar managerial type people who had built the church but now were upper middle class black professionals moving in from moving into Teaneck from upper Manhattan, New York City, and who had grown up as Episcopalians and also people from the islands, the West Indians so that was the largest influx of new people into the parish and so what I found when I came here was a multi-ethnic parish very much reminiscent of the community at large. And since I came here, we have in fact grown in that and become as mixed and as diversified as the township at large I think.
(I) Do you see this as something positive?
(N) Oh yeah. If I had had to choose a place in which I could do ministry, I probably wouldn't have chosen a place better than St. Mark's in Teaneck. I really value the pluralism, I really value the multi-ethnic variety and the different types of people both in the town as well as in the church.
(I) How did the remaining old timers, let us say, take to this new multi-ethnic group that has come into the church?
(N) Well for some that has been a relatively easy transition because they wouldn't have lived in Teaneck if they hadn't been more open to living in that kind of environment in the first place. There have been those who have been very upset about the changes in the church and not only the changes in St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Teaneck but also changes in the Episcopal Church that have taken place nationwide. The ordination of women, the new prayer book, the liberalization that has gone on across the board has upset a lot of very traditional folk and I think taken together with the difficulty of seeing your parish change under your nose and seeing a whole group of people kind of go that you had grown up with and raised your children with and now those people are no longer there and they are no longer in charge certainly has been very painful and difficult I think for a lot of our folk. Many of them have left in anger particularly as I have pushed for our involvement in the community and as I have pushed social issues and I have seen them and acted in my conscience to talk about them. I try very hard not to be political in the sense of, in the strict sense of not pushing any party lines but I certainly as I think I said earlier, go at all of the social issues of the day from a very theological perspective so whether it is civil rights or peace or Jewish Christian relations, or whatever it is, I feel that the church has to be involved in it. That's just what it means to be a Christian.
(I) Let's discuss for a few moments the Jewish Christian relationship that you have been such a big part of in this town. I know that you as the pastor of St. Mark's, you have along with Rabbi Deborah Prinz of the Reformed Jewish Congregation, one of the reformed congregations in town, established a dialogue between parishioners in St. Mark's and congregants in Beth Am. Would you talk to me a little bit about this and tell me how it came about and what you see as the philosophy behind this venture.
(N) Sure. That too has its own history of course. When I was in Israel, I ran across some people on the kibbutz who were Germans by background and who had been some of the victims of Dr. Mengala in his horrendous medical experimentations. There were about forty of these men, all of whom had lost their entire family and had come to the kibbutz almost en mass after the Holocaust and they always picked fruit together and I had several opportunities to be out in the fields with them and they were very cultured and they were philosophers and theologians and educators and they would always pick fruit and talk about important things in German of course but since I had my German background and those men impressed me powerfully and believe it or not, growing up in a very pluralistic community in Queens with a Jewish community center right around the corner, I didn't know about the Holocaust. All through college, I didn't know about the Holocaust. And it really wasn't until I was out of seminary and was actually in parish work and went back to Israel a second time in 1979, just after I got here to St. Mark's and went to Yadvashem for the first time that I found myself standing in the middle of Yadvashem weeping.
(I) Would you describe for us what Yadvashem is please?
(N) Yes. Yadvashem is the memorial to the Holocaust. There is also along with the memorial to the Holocaust a very large and expansive museum and educational center telling the story of the Holocaust and it wasn't until I was I guess, twenty nine years old, thirty, that I understood the history or the relationship between Christians and Jews and I was horrified. I mean it just struck very deeply at all of my moralistic biblically oriented roots and I said how can Christians call themselves Christians if they've persecuted Jews? You know Jews have the covenant relationship with God. It is their covenant. Christians are brought into that covenant through Jesus who was a Jew and it was out of that that I began digging into history and the more I read, the more active I became and the more active I became, the more committed I became to really setting, spending the rest of my life setting the relationship right.
(I) Did you initiate that dialogue between the two religious centers?
(N) Yeah. I think I did. I wouldn't want to take any more credit for it than Deborah Prinz. We met together and had lunch after she first came, when she first came. We hit it off as colleagues and we started talking and I told her of my interest and she seemed very open to that and it has been from that to wonderful. The relationship has grown between us that I cherish.
(I) What other groups or committees so to speak have you been part of in town that you consider important to you as both a pastor and as a human being?
(N) In town I am the co-chairman of the Teaneck Clergy Association. I am at this point it has fallen to me to become the president of the Campus Chaplaincy Enabling Board at Fairleigh Dickinson University. We supervise the Protestant chaplain. I've become very involved with the Jewish community and so therefore I am involved with the UJC of Bergen County and work well with them on the interfaith task force of Bergen County which is a part of the UJC. I am also at this point the chairman of a small group of people called the Americans Concerned for Israel and the Middle East and very active in pro-Israel involvements. I am a member of AIPAC, the America Israel Public Action Committee and I am also a member of the diocessan task force on Jewish Christian relations so my work with Debbie has had a direct effect on bringing some of the models that we are trying to develop in that task force to really work in local congregations.
(I) I see. Let me backtrack a little. I should have asked you this before. What do you see as being the most successful aspect of St. Mark's dialogue with Beth Am?
(N) I think the most successful aspect is really just the growing and deepening trust level and opening of the two groups of people to each other's lives. I think Teaneck prides itself and rightly so on being a very open and tolerant and pluralistic community but often that pluralism and tolerance is a very shallow kind of tolerance, not under girded by real genuine knowledge of each other's lives and each other's faith and each other's commitments. I think what I've seen among the people who have participated in these dialogues is just a wonderful growing respect for each other's traditions and for the commonality that we share. That in fact we not only, we pay lip service to the fact that we worship one God but we really don't believe it and I think what has come out of the dialogue is that we've really become convinced that we really do worship the same God.
(I) What direction should further dialogues take?
(N) Oh, that's in one way a very difficult question. I, my vision, my fantasies have us broadening the dialogue to include not just only reformed congregations and the Episcopal congregation in town and after all, we tend to be the more liberal of both of our traditions. It is very easy to be reformed and Episcopalian because in some ways, you walk into either of our congregations, you might not know what the difference is. But I think where the dialogue really gets very important and where it becomes very crucial is among the more conservative elements involving the conservative congregations and hopefully eventually some of the orthodox congregations. That's a long term wish.
(I) Let me carry from that. One of your parishioners has told me that you have tried to raise the consciousness of St. Mark's parishioners in terms of social justice and world hunger and peace movement and nuclear weapons. That's all so far. And that you have also been involved with the Teaneck Satellite Center for Food Action and you have tried to encourage your parish to maintain a continuing on-going collection of food for the hungry. Do you want to comment on any of these activities.
(N) I guess only to the degree that I guess I see the Christian faith as being a faith that has to be lived out in action as righteousness. Of the quest for social justice. The quest for peace. The quest for human dignity. And wherever those areas impinge upon the real world, we've got to get involved and that's all there is to it. That's our mandate. It's all very, very simple but in my own mind of course, it doesn't appear to be very simple.
(I) Speaking of getting involved, now you were arrested several months ago. In January I think it was. And I believe it was for being a very active protester during a sit-in at the West German consulate in New York. Can you tell me what it is you were protesting and what happened?
(N) Sure. The West German government has made overtures to the Saudi Arabian government to sell them massive amounts of what they term defensive weapons. We, those of us who were protesting, don't believe that those weapons to be sold to Saudi Arabia by the West German government are in fact defensive; they are used offensively. We believe that it is wrong for any government to heat up the middle east by the sale, by the infusion of yet more weapons of terror and destruction in an area which is already overheated with those weapons especially when Saudi Arabia has such a reputation for turning those weapons over to the worst elements of the middle east - terror and destructive groups.
(I) That is quite a stand you are taking. What is the reaction of your parishioners towards your involvements in activities, strong involvements in activities of this sort?
(N) Of course you never hear, I think as a pastor, some of the more negative responses that people might have. People around here are generally gracious enough that if they disagree with me or if they don't like what I've done, they just keep it to themselves. Sometimes I am sorry about that because it doesn't give us an opportunity to talk about our differences. I have received nothing but support from this congregation. In terms of those people who have said something, it has been very positive and very supportive. The people have recognized that I have my perspectives. They may not agree with them but they certainly recognize my right as a Christian person to exercise my conscience in whatever way I really feel I have to and in fact I've received great support for it. So I am very grateful to this congregation for that.
(I) Yes. Those who have at least verbalized their sentiments towards you. Within the town itself, within Teaneck, what is there that you would like to attend to that you have not yet approached?
(N) I think the one issue that remains for the religious community to tackle in Teaneck is of course the ongoing issue of our pluralism and how we live together in peace and respect for one another. The place where that usually gets acted out unfortunately is in the school system and I think there is a lot of tension around the school system as there always is.
(I) You hit a hot spot. Ongoing.
(N) Yeah. It is an ongoing problem and I think the religious community has a great deal to say about that. Not that the religious community ought to walk into the school system and dictate what it teaches and how it runs the schools but rather I think the religious community has a great deal to say about how we can learn to get along with each other and come to respect each other's positions. Like I say, I don't think this is a new issue. I just think it is one that we really need to come head on and deal with. The other issue is, of course, and the other place where the tension gets acted out is in the area of police community relations and I would hope that the religious community again has some impact on that relationship.
(I) Has the religious community in any way begun to take an overt interest in areas such as you've mentioned?
(N) Yeah. I can't be specific about that right now because we are in the middle of some discussions with some people in town about that but I can say that I work with a great group of colleagues. Men and women whom I respect greatly. Teaneck is blessed with a whole lot of talented religious leaders who I think are beginning to see that we can have (END OF TAPE 1 - SIDE 2 - BEGIN TAPE 2)
(I) We are starting Tape #2 of the Oral History interview of Father Bruce Bramlett, pastor of St. Mark's Episcopal Church. Actually I am very glad that we had this opportunity to go to Tape #2 because a very special event occurred in town on Monday evening, April 30th and it was a commemoration, a Community Holocaust Commemoration, that was sponsored by the Jewish Community Council of Teaneck and featured many speakers one of whom is Father Bramlett and I am going to ask you now, Father Bramlett, if you will tell us why you chose to participate in this commemoration.
(N) Well that is easy. For me, it seems a natural place to be to make a witness of my faith. I believe that the Christians have to be involved in concerns such as the Holocaust. Christianity had a great deal to do with allowing the kinds of atmosphere to exist for 1800 years which allowed the Holocaust to happen in the first place and I think Christians have to begin to rethink their relationship with Jews. And I certainly believe personally that that rethinking means to do as I think the scriptures call us to do and that is to live in repentance, to live in matanoia (?), to turn around, to change our ways of relating. And I think that has to be done in active kinds of participation. One of the ways in which I can do that is to attempt to speak out as a Christian in those places where it seems appropriate. I was asked to participate and to, as a Christian leader, and so I was very happy to speak at that celebration.
(I) Thank you. I think what we will do now is turn to a much, much lighter issue and one in which you got great involvement and that is your marriage. Would you talk a little about your marriage in terms of when you were married and who your wife is and anything that you'd like to add about that.
(N) Yeah. I met my wife while I was performing my pastoral duties as a matter of fact. It sounds awfully strange but I met her while I was doing some hospital visitation at Englewood Hospital on behalf of my colleague in Englewood who was on vacation at the time. It was his parishioner whom I met, Elizabeth Clements, who is a resident, or was a resident of Englewood all her life and was in the hospital for some tests. We met and we talked and after she got out of the hospital, several months later, or after several months, she came and visited here at St. Mark's. Just showed up one Sunday morning and we picked up the relationship at that point and began to date and we were married in this parish the following August. August of 1982. So we've been married, we were married in the midst of this congregation which was a wonderful event for us all. Elizabeth works for T.J. Lipton as a microbiologist and we are now expecting our first child at the end of this month as a matter of fact so we are getting quite excited about that. That possibility is now beginning to take over our entire lives. I am finding myself much less able to do the work I need to be doing and much more wanting to be at home and fixing up the baby's room and making the preparations so I am getting a nesting reaction to all of this. Elizabeth is well loved here in this congregation. She sings in the choir and generally participates in the life of the congregation although I try very hard to keep her out of the business of being a clergy spouse in a sense of being like the second clergy person in the congregation. That's difficult.
(I) How does Elizabeth feel about that?
(N) Well, she very quickly found out that people will put a lot of expectations and pressures upon her if she doesn't make some decisions about how she's going to relate to people and one of the things that we had to clarify between us over and over again is how she is to relate to people viz a viz me. People are very quick in any situation like this, whether it be a clergy situation or what, to always send messages through people who are less threatening. If you want to get to an authority figure, and so my wife is seen as the less threatening person. If somebody wants to tell me that they didn't like something or that they didn't want me to do something, or whatever it is, the complaint, it is a lot easier for them to talk with Elizabeth and then Elizabeth of course found herself in the middle trying to tell me what somebody else wanted me to know and we very quickly had to come to some decision about how we were going to handle that. But she basically does what she wants to do in this congregation and doesn't do what she wants not to do. And I try to put as little pressure on her as possible.
(I) Do you find that the members of the parish have certain expectations of Elizabeth?
(N) Well they are pretty good about that. They really are very good about that I think. There are other congregations that I have heard about and that some of my colleagues are involved with who I think are a lot more open about the kind of expectations they have or a lot more pressuring about that. People here have been used to having clergy wives who have worked and so they come not to expect that the clergy wife is going to be around full time to kind of pick up the pieces and that's fairly helpful. It was also, people here I think also knew me as a single person and so the expectations when I first came here were that I was the one that got hired rather than my wife and I so that helped an awful lot. When she came aboard, it was, people really saw her as a separate and distinct human being, you know, apart from me and I think that has helped quite a bit so they are pretty good about it.
(I) What would you like to add about you life and possibly Elizabeth's life if you could speak for her in Teaneck as a town that we've not yet discussed.
(N) I guess that's a kind of a broad question. I think I said this earlier in an earlier interview that for me, if I had chosen a place and a town in which to do ministry, I couldn't have chosen one in which I would feel more comfortable. I think that goes for Elizabeth as well. We both feel very, very comfortable here and very positive about it. I think we value the egos of the town and we value the people that we've come to know and love here. If and when we come to a point when we have to leave or move on, it is going to be very, very difficult. I don't even at this point want to think about it.
(I) Yeah. I was going to ask you what your feelings are at the present time about your actually, about remaining in Teaneck.
(N) You know there comes a point at which a congregation like this one is a smaller congregation and people really do expect you to kind of move on after several years to something else. I am in fact thinking about going back to graduate school and getting my doctorate in Jewish Christian relations.
(I) This is not in the metropolitan area.
(N) I don't know. I haven't gotten as far as thinking through the specific schools or the specific programs. We are also contemplating leaving to do some work in Jewish Christian relations in Israel. We are considering doing that at this point so there are some things that percolate but certainly nothing decided at this point.
(I) Israel is almost like your adopted homeland.
(N) Oh indeed it is. You know I just live here. Israel is home. It really is the way I feel about it.
(I) Well you have made that very clear both in this interview and in your actions and your talks around town, Beth Am of course. Okay. Is there anything else that you would like to add or to clarify.
(N) I guess I don't think so. I haven't had a chance to listen to the tapes as we did them last time so I don't know what perhaps needs clarification.
(I) Well, what I could do, I'll take the tapes and if there is anything else that you want to add, we'll gut, we will do that. Okay. So I do thank you very much for sharing your experiences and your philosophies and I have certainly enjoyed speaking with you formally on the tape and informally sometimes also. Thank you very, very much.
(N) Thank you.
(I) This is Father Bruce Bramlett and Meryl Sachs concluding their interview together.
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