The shingle outside the Rev. Peter Bramble's office might read "church rector," but his influence goes far beyond the pulpit of St. Katherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church in West Baltimore. The 46-year-old native of Montserrat in the West Indies has left remnants of his community activism all over Baltimore since he became the first black pastor of the little church at Presstman and Division streets 15 years ago.
Hard-working and visionary, Mr. Bramble has had a hand in everything from running grocery stores to building housing. Besides pastor, you could call him author, newspaper columnist, businessman, developer and even potential movie producer.
Above all, he says, he'd like to be known for what he does best -- preaching his philosophy. And that philosophy -- which he published in a book titled "The Overcome: A Black Passover" a couple years ago -- is where his energies are this weekend, the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Bramble is speaking on "The Overcome" at St. James Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square today at the 10:30 a.m. Mass, capping three days of spreading his philosophy in his own and neighboring congregations.
"The Overcome is a collective rite of passage, of people moving from under to over, from being losers to being winners," says Mr. Bramble. It is a conceptual change, he says, from seeing oneself as "on the way" to victory, power and self-respect to seeing oneself as having completed the pilgrimage.
The problem with traditional black liberation language, he says, is that it keeps people thinking "We shall overcome." Until they believe they already have overcome, they can't move forward, he says.
The overcome rite, which Mr. Bramble celebrated in a joint ceremony with St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Friday and repeated yesterday at St. James Episcopal, comes only once a year, but the philosophy behind it forms the backbone for his actions and preachings year-round.
"Peter Bramble is a Renaissance man. He is conceptually ahead of his time," says Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume, whose congressional district includes most of West Baltimore. "His ideas border on the unconventional."
Mr. Bramble doesn't mind being unconventional, or controversial for that matter. In his weekly column on Page 1 of the Baltimore Times newspaper, which he and his wife, Joy, own, he is intentionally provocative.
His unmasked criticism of everyone from state delegates to NAACP chief Benjamin Hooks has ruffled more than a few feathers; but he says it's given the paper a reputation for honesty among its readers. He has defended President Bush's appointment of blacks to office and criticized Mayor Schmoke for endorsing Bill Clinton, a candidate "only those who see government as Santa Claus" would support.
Of the effort of some state legislators to officially change "black" to "African American" in state laws and regulations, he writes, "Shame on them all! There are too many other pressing problems in our common world for our 'leaders' to devote precious time to a dysfunctional change of name." (The bill was enacted by the General Assembly Thursday.)
Mr. Bramble's controversial opinions are nothing new to longtime members of St. Katherine's.
"He says things to get people thinking in different ways," says 40-year parishioner Mildred Taylor, who ran a food cooperative in the church undercroft for years under his guidance. "It's a very conscious effort on his part because he knows people can become very complacent."
Mrs. Taylor remembers Mr. Bramble's early days at St. Katherine's: "When he first came here, he said a lot of controversial things. He tried to get us more involved in the business world -- investing, pooling our money, so we would have some financial clout.
"A lot of people didn't see that as the role of a priest," she says, adding that "Some people didn't like being reminded of the community's shortcomings."
But as Mr. Bramble explains it, economic activity is simply the next stage of the overcome.
"Now that we have arrived, just as the children of Israel arrived in Israel no longer carrying their tents on their backs, we have to build. Not just your church and your burial ground, but your liquor store, your hospital and so forth."
"Peter Bramble is an economic activist who believes you can best control your community by controlling its resources," says Mr. Mfume. It is not unusual for ministers in the black community to be advocates for social change, the congressman says, "but it's a bold stroke to take the level of advocacy clergy have been associated with and link it up with economic change."
It's not just talk on Mr. Bramble's part. From the time he arrived in Baltimore, he has tried to get a financial toehold in the community, not only for himself but for his parish.
Indeed it was as a result of a Sunday sermon that Mr. Bramble acquired his first grocery store. "I was preaching that a black community has no way of engineering the circulation of money within the community if we don't own any of the stores. . . . So I said, rather innocently, 'The next one that becomes available I will buy.' "
One listener took him seriously and hooked him up with an 80-year-old shopkeeper who was eager to retire. She was so anxious to keep ownership in black hands that "She practically handed it to me," he said.
"I was really just preaching," he said, "but she called my bluff. I had no choice, I was trapped."
Mr. Bramble's wife, Joy, quit her job as a schoolteacher to run the corner store on Gold Street, while her husband weathered opposition from those who thought a minister had no business owning a store with a license to sell beer and wine.
About a year later, another corner grocery -- without a liquor license -- became available under similar circumstances, and the couple bought that, too. They ran the stores for three or four years, until repeated break-ins and vandalism forced them to give them up.
Since then, there have been other economic inspirations from Mr. Bramble. The latest involves his plans to start an investment club -- not of well-heeled types with money to burn, but of 5,000 middle-class "folks" capable of investing a couple hundred dollars at a time -- to purchase potentially successful businesses in predominantly black neighborhoods.
"This is all part of the next stage of the overcome," says Mr. Bramble. "Our aim here is to stabilize the community."
And then there's his screenplay. Actually, "The Family of Overcomers" was written by Felton Perry, a member of the Writers Guild of America whom Mr. Bramble contracted to help spread his philosophy to the rest of the world. The script is being shopped among filmmakers in Hollywood.
But probably his most successful venture to date is the $l Baltimore Times, the community newspaper he and his wife began in 1986.
Positive stories about blacks
"I had been nurturing the idea of developing a paper for the black community that would run positive stories about its own people," says Mr. Bramble. He says he didn't want "a lot of blood and guts on the front page."
Mrs. Bramble became its publisher. "My husband gets me into all these things," she says, in mock distress, noting that she consistently puts in 12- to 16-hour days.
The paper went from a monthly to a weekly after a year and relied heavily on unpaid staff for a long time. Mrs. Bramble initially peddled all the advertising herself, and even today Mr. Bramble spends his day off as a priest delivering papers to drop-off points around the Beltway from Essex to Catonsville.
The free paper is distributed in churches, malls and street boxes. Circulation has climbed to nearly 50,000 copies today, says Mrs. Bramble, who notes that the paper was started on her husband's weekly salary, a single desktop computer and no help in the way of small-business or bank loans.
"Peter and I come from a different tradition," she says. "There's no government aid in Montserrat. You don't go to the government for help. You learn to be self-reliant and responsible."
Mr. Bramble met his wife in Montserrat in 1972. She had recently completed college in Canada and he was fresh out of Yale Divinity School and home for his ordination. They married that year and returned to the United States, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1976 from the University of Connecticut.
That fall, with two children and heavily in debt from college
loans, he went hunting for a job and a green card. Meanwhile, St. Katherine's, having recently gained independence from Mount Calvary Episcopal Church on Eutaw Street, was looking for a pastor.
Parish and priest filled one another's needs, and the partnership was cemented. Mr. Bramble stayed 10 years longer than he had promised the church elders and saw St. Katherine's celebrate its 100th anniversary last year.
Mr. Bramble's provocative style -- initially unsettling to parishioners -- has come to be familiar and comforting now, says the church's senior warden Errol Taylor.
"Peter is a good speaker. He's a good thinker," says Mr. Taylor, who has been a member of St. Katherine's parish all of his 68 years. "He has lots of ideas, and people take it from there. That's probably his strongest point. He stands back and lets you do your thing. It works for us. It gets results."
Today the parish of less than 200 members is looking forward to the arrival of a new church organ to replace the one destroyed by lightning about two years ago. Members are halfway through a $92,000 fund-raising effort to pay for it, says Mr. Taylor.
Apparently Mr. Bramble is winning over church members to the economic development role, too. In cooperation with Baltimore Corporation for Housing Partnerships, St. Katherine's is developing an apartment building for the elderly on a vacant lot at Pennsylvania and North avenues.
"We wanted to anchor something in the neighborhood that could start the rejuvenation of the entire community," says Mr. Bramble of the building, which will be financed with federal Housing and Urban Development funds, a state construction grant and a city land grant. Construction on the six-story building may begin as early as next month.
THE BRAMBLE FILE
Born: July 27, 1945, on island of Montserrat, West Indies.
Occupation: Rector, St. Katherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church in Baltimore.
Education: Licentiate from University of the West Indies, Barbados, 1969; master's in religion (M.A.R) in 1972 and theology (M.Div.) in 1973, Yale Divinity School; Ph.D. in philosophy and education, University of Connecticut, 1976.
Family: Married to Joy Bramble, publisher of the Baltimore Times; daughter, Jocelyn Cara, 18, and son, Peter David, 15, are students at City College High School.
Current home: Madison Park.
His parish's proudest accomplishments: Adoption of Gilmor Elementary School, "long before mentoring was the popular thing to do"; establishment of the Druid Heights Community Association; founding the Lois Wright Concert Series; sponsoring a missionary to Liberia earlier this year.