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Split Church Gets New Rector : Ex-Policeman, Athlete Called Calming Compromise

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. J. Jon Bruno, a former policeman and professional football player, is a large man. Now, the 6-foot, 5-inch, 300-pound Episcopal priest has a job to match his size--a job that may require the spirituality of a clergyman, the street smarts of a cop and the rough-and-tumble doggedness of a defensive tackle.

Bruno is taking over the rectorate of St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, the Echo Park parish bitterly divided over the recent ouster of its last priest. The dispute has been ugly, involving lawsuits, contested elections, seizure of bank accounts, excommunication of laymen and, at one point, the hiring of a bodyguard.

Bruno, 39, is viewed as a compromise candidate, someone to reconcile the two sides and bring peace to the oldest Protestant congregation in Los Angeles. He said he realizes that the task won’t be easy.

“You know the old saying about ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread?’ Well, I’m no angel. So of course I have some fear and trembling about entering this situation. But I do it prayerfully. I feel compelled to respond to the need.”

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Bruno formally takes over the rectorate of St. Athanasius on Jan. 1 but he preached the sermon on Sunday and will do so again on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Many parishioners already know of him because, after an unusual combination of careers, he is also the general manager of Taix Les Freres French Restaurant, the Sunset Boulevard landmark just a few blocks from the church. He intends to keep his position at the restaurant, which is owned by relatives, and will have weekends off to devote to the church. He has kept a similar schedule for the past two years while an associate rector in charge of youth programs at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pomona.

“Restauranting is my profession; the priesthood is my vocation,” he said during an interview at the restaurant.

In one of the many legal conferences surrounding the ouster of the Rev. Ian Mitchell from St. Athanasius, Bruno’s name was mentioned by Mitchell’s attorney, James Griffin, as someone who might fill in at the church, both sides say. The archdiocese, otherwise fighting Mitchell and Griffin for four months, agreed. So did many parishioners, divided between an Old Guard that wanted Mitchell out and newcomers, including many homosexuals, who sued Bishop Robert Rusack in an attempt to keep Mitchell.

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“I had already thought of Jon Bruno two months ago,” recalled the Rev. Terence Lynberg, the archdeacon who was put in charge of the parish when the dispute erupted in September. “When I heard his name from the other side, I thought, ‘That’s a stroke of brilliance.’ ”

Bruno is the right man for the job, Lynberg said, because he was born in Echo Park and knows the neighborhood well through the restaurant. His experience as a policeman will help him deal with the gang problem in the area, the archdeacon said. A gang-diversion program, El Centro del Pueblo, rents space from the church. And, he said, Bruno is “sensitive to sexism and aware of alternative communities such as gay people.”

Calming Presence

Besides, Bruno’s size gives him a special calming presence, people on both sides say. It may be difficult to continue arguments with a former defensive tackle and detective urging reconciliation.

“It’s true,” Bruno said. “I can look intimidating or like a big teddy bear.”

Some of Mitchell’s supporters are so angry about his dismissal that they say they will quit the parish no matter who takes over.

But others say they are pleased by Bruno’s efforts to make both camps feel comfortable, and by his assurances that such community programs as El Centro will remain and that gays will be welcome. There is, however, some suspicion of Bruno because he was appointed by Rusack, whom some view as an autocrat, and because Bruno pledges his loyalty to the bishop.

“I support Robert Rusack and owe my allegiance to him. And that is not shallowly said,” Bruno stated. Asked about Mitchell’s challenge to the bishop, Bruno issued a terse and diplomatic: “No comment.”

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Comment From Mitchell

Mitchell said he does not know Bruno but “has heard he’s a good guy.”

“But I can’t imagine any priest going in there now without trepidation. It’s a hothouse,” said Mitchell, who has taken a job with Community Housing Services, a nonprofit organization based in South Pasadena. The group runs day-care centers and helps low-income families find housing. “It’s not what I was ordained to do, but it is the kind of thing that represents real social action as far as the Gospel is concerned.”

Mitchell said he is resigned to the fact that he will never be reinstated at St. Athanasius or to any parish in the diocese as long as Rusack remains bishop. “My career has been ruined,” he said.

But he stressed that he wishes Bruno well and “wants to stay out of his hair.”

Mitchell was elected rector in 1983 by the parish vestry board of laymen. Canon law, a civil judge decided last month, requires that any choice of the vestry be approved by the bishop. Mitchell was not approved by the bishop because, among other things, he had divorced and remarried without getting Rusack’s approval.

Vote to Fire

But Mitchell functioned as rector until this fall, when a vestry majority, saying it recognized its past error, voted to fire him. Mitchell claims that he was ousted because he ruffled the feathers of elderly Anglo women on the vestry by attracting minorities and young gays to the parish. For a while, the two sides held simultaneous rival services on church property.

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Mitchell lost his case for reinstatement before Superior Court Judge John Cole, who, however, ordered a court-supervised election of a new vestry board. That election was held Sunday. The results are expected to be announced next week after the judge reviews the many challenges to which parishioners have the right to vote.

Meanwhile, the bishop has placed ecclesiastical censure, tantamount to excommunication, against four of Mitchell’s main supporters, including attorney Griffin.

Attended Election Session

Bruno said he is not interfering with the lawsuits or election “in order to keep my position untainted.” He attended the election session Sunday as an observer, greeting everyone cordially and introducing his wife, Mary, a bank personnel officer, to parishioners, even as the two camps continued to bicker.

“It was terribly painful to see the parish ripped asunder,” he said. “It would be very sad if it continues on and on and on. I pray this place can allow itself to blossom and flower because God wants that, I’m sure.”

Bruno was born in Echo Park and raised in East Los Angeles. He was a football player at California State University, Los Angeles, and after graduation was hired by the Denver Broncos as center and tackle. He described himself as a plugger on the bench, never a starter. After 1 1/2 years on the team and a severe arm injury, he left and joined the Burbank police force. He was a policeman for six years, eventually working as a detective.

Felt Calling

All through the rough worlds of football and police work, he said, he had felt a calling to the priesthood. He was raised as a Roman Catholic but converted to Episcopalianism in his early 20s because, he explained, he could not accept the Roman Catholic mandate of priestly celibacy.

He enrolled in the Virginia Theological Seminary and graduated in 1977. He then took a series of church jobs in Virginia, Oregon and California. In 1981, he quit a rectorate in Eugene, Ore., in the wake of his divorce from his first wife, with whom he has two children. He moved back to the Los Angeles area and began to work at Taix Les Freres. With permission from the bishop, he remarried and was eventually appointed to his post in Pomona.

Bruno says he intends to draw on his police experience to help at his new parish.

“As a policeman, I saw what it is like to be in pain and feel so disenfranchised that you strike out in anger,” he said. “I also know that it is necessary to keep ourselves open to all sorts of human beings, all different conditions of life styles.”

One of his first steps as rector, he said, will be to help design a new emblem for the front of the church. He wants it in six languages--English, Spanish, Korean, Pilipino, Chinese and Japanese to reflect the diversity of Echo Park. It will say: “Together in Christ.”


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