Waking up on Labor Day

Rev. Raymond H. Bradley Jr.
(July 25, 1929-August 29, 2014)
a minister of the United Church of Christ

In the summer of 1992, I was unable to sleep. I had had a bad breakup in the late spring, and each night tossed and turned until the sun rose when I would sleep for a couple of hours before going to work. Finally, on Labor Day weekend, I slept straight through for a day and a half, and woke up on Labor Day noticing a cooler air, a brilliant and clear sky, and even a touch of hope in my heart.

I spent the next nine months considering whether I would answer the long-felt call to divinity school (and perhaps to professional ministry). I had three significant conversation partners during that time: the late Rev. Dr. Lucius Walker (Baptist), with whom I went to Cuba as part of Pastors for Peace; the late Rev. Dr. Jack Mendelsohn (Unitarian Universalist), who supervised my year of working as a church sexton; and Rev. Raymond H. Bradley, Jr., who died last week of complications after a car crash on August 10.

I can’t capture my relationship with Mr. Bradley with a little parenthetical. I was one of the first people in Riverside, RI to get to know him. I was a college freshman and sophomore when I served on the Pastoral Search Committee that found Mr. Bradley and recommended him as our first choice candidate to become our Pastor. He counseled me as I came to terms with being gay–something I knew about myself for as long as I could remember, but which I feared I could never share with my community of faith, or even my family. He made me the choir director of our children and youth choir, and supervised my work assisting the church organist as I led the senior choir and created wild theatrical moments for the church. And as I struggled with my doubt, with my search for deep meaning, with my thirst for a spirituality that included emotion and mystery, and my struggle for intellectual satisfaction in religion, Mr. Bradley was open, supportive and encouraging.

He married us; he baptized our kids; he stood with both my Mom and Dad when they served on the Board of Deacons and were called to share in the Lord’s Supper; he helped us welcome people into our family, and when Dad died, he played a significant role in standing with a family in their grief.

Christmas Eve was, for many years, a special time for the two of us. We had an early service at church at 7:00 o’clock or so, and then there were a number of families that had open houses and we’d go to a couple or few of those. But the late service at 11:00 o’clock was the candlelight service that was simple and poetic, very present and full of time-beyond-time. I sang three or four quiet solos in the earlier years; Mr. Bradley read the scriptures and led us in prayer; and all of us would sit in wonder as the announcement was made of the God-with-us in ways that we could know and never fully understand.

After the service, I would go to the Bradleys’ home for a little quiet time. Ever our pastor’s wife, Sally would make tea and light candles, and we’d sit around the Christmas tree and exchange gifts and stories. As I moved on in my life, moved to Boston and beyond, the routine was altered; the late service louder and more energetic, and the after-church visitation sometimes waiting for Christmas Day.

One last time of sitting and speaking came, years later, when I visited their home in Peace Dale after my dad died. We shared tea and shortbread and more stories about our lives and our loves. I confessed my failures in ministry, and he comforted and encouraged me about what it means to be human, and to fail, and to use failures as a way to learn. He shared with me about not giving up, and discerning what was the special quality that each day presented for living a life of faith, striving for wholeness and justice. And he encouraged me to keep thinking theologically; to understand the authority that ministers have in the congregational tradition, and the responsibility we bear for nurturing the life of the congregations we are called both to serve and to lead. And he asked me to hear the divine will in the living of our collective life; to nurture a practice of quiet prayer and enthusiastic detachment, with a view toward a longer life, a richer effectiveness, and a deeper identification with all the human hearts we encounter and are called to love.

Since adulthood, I’ve never known life without Raymond H Bradley, Jr. Now he is gone. This is something entirely new. My fervent prayer is that my life will shine with just a glint of the hope that his life represented, and the deepest conviction that each new birth, each new accomplishment, each new relationship, each new act of justice and each new kindness is proof that God has not given up on us yet; and that we dare not give up on each other.

“Oh Love, that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee. I give Thee back the life I owe that in thine ocean depths, its flow may richer, fuller be.” (George Mattheson, 1882)

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