A Presbyterian Minister Speaks Out (Bruce Cameron)

It’s June 16th and I’m recording an interview with Bruce Cameron. I understand you’re a Presbyterian minister, but you’re retired now.

Retired now. I used to do occasional Sunday substitute work. I was ordained in 1978. I also took some time off to become a chef.

You did?

I did. Yeah. I went to what was the Western Culinary Institute in Portland. I was in the church for about 16 years and took a year for school. Actually, when my father died and left me his house in Seattle I had enough money to go to school for a year and worked in the industry for three or four years, off and on, still do a lot of cooking for church conferences and various special events. I don’t do it full time anymore. It’s too much work. [laughs]

And when you were a minister, you had your own churches but you’ve also been involved in a lot of political action?

Yeah. Your questions brought back a lot of memories for me and when I was in high school, I remember being fairly uncritically caught up in anti-communist ideology. Basically when the Vietnam War was cranking up my initial reaction was to think, “Well, we’re not winning that war, why aren’t we trying harder,” you know. And hit ‘em harder and that sort of thing.

So, basically through the influence of friends and professors at college, including a girlfriend that wanted me to go with her to a demonstration against the war, my mind changed and I became very active in that. I wore anti-draft stuff. I was also fortunate to get into seminary just as they were trying to draft me. [laughs] It was not my goal to escape the draft by going to seminary but I was willing to take the deferment anyway and so felt an obligation in seminary to continue participating in anti-war activities and also met up with some friends who were interested in how the seminary was investing its funds and since Princeton Seminary is one of the largest religious institutions in terms of their endowment, I think second only to the Vatican, we tried to find out how they were investing all this money.

Initially they told us all, “Go back to your studies,” you know, don’t bother us, grown up stuff. That was their attitude, basically. You’re here to study, you’re not here to question us. Ethics professors saying, “It’s wrong of you to be raising ethical questions.” Anyway. So, this was the early seventies. And a lot of things came together.

There was a lot of anti-war activity and there was a contention among black students that the head of the grounds-keeping department was racist, probably was, and refused to hire anybody who wasn’t white. So they were organizing. The anti-war people were organizing. The people looking into seminary investments were organizing and it all came together right around the time of the Kent State massacre and the bombing of Cambodia.

It all kind of came together in the meeting room of the seminary library where the trustees were meeting. And there was another contingent that wanted trustees to be open to hearing student input into their policies.

Now, you keep talking about this as if it was other people. Were you yourself involved?

I was involved, yes. I was one of three students that were negotiating with the trustees to get them to listen to us. So, I was in with two other students and we were talking with the trustees and another group of students was outside the door and somebody brought a bicycle chain and wrapped the chain around the door handles to lock everybody in. And some of these, these trustees are a combination of wealthy elders and business people and tall steeple pastors and some of them were fighting with …

Tall steeple?

Yes. I mean, you know, big church. And they were kind of pushing each other aside trying to crawl out the windows. This would’ve made a great movie.

These are dignified rich people.

Yeah. And outside there was this phalanx of black students standing around, “Get back in there, get back in there.” [laughs] And they were so intimidated they went back in. And the funny thing was this one fella, he was a pastor from down South, he goes, “This is duress! This is duress! Bruce Cameron has locked us in!” “It’s locked from the outside. I’m in here with you! How did I do that?” “We don’t know how you did it but you did it. You’re responsible.” Oh yeah. So. Finally, I’m the one that convinced ‘em to let ‘em out, you know, but I didn’t get any credit for that.

[laughs] You know, it was crazy. Anyway, that was a hilarious time, it was, lookin’ back on it, very tense.

Did it have any impact?

It did. They do have advisory people among the alumni, and I think among some of the students also, now. I don’t know how much. Last year a fellow graduate alum from that seminary nominated me to be on the alumni council as one of several from the West and I had a long conversation with the staff person who was interviewing everyone about it. But, they must’ve looked back in the record [laughs] and seen something about me. Probably saw that I hadn’t given ‘em any money since I graduated so that probably killed it off. [laughs] One of the main duties of the alumni council is to generate financial support.

So that’s then. This is now. I’ve been involved in a number of things, anti-war stuff, going back to college days. I organized a group of friends to lead a demonstration downtown at the Convention of the Military Chaplains. So, we had a little picket sign thing going up there, you know, sky pilots and all this kind of thing.

Sky pilots?

That was a popular song in the sixties. Called “Sky Pilots”, it was about chaplains blessing weapons and this kind of thing, you know. Blessing the weapons and participating in Caesar’s perks, you know, his officers. When I started in the ministry another big issue was women’s rights. That was just becoming a major topic at that time. And I gave several speeches of a pro-choice nature that got me a certain amount of hate mail. As well as positive. This was in Montana, actually. I gave several speeches in Missoula at the invitation of Planned Parenthood. And I’ve been an advisor for Planned Parenthood. Here, too in Oregon I’ve been caught up in those issues.

So, primarily what you’ve been doing is organizing, have you been speaking for causes or …

Right. Lot of writing. Writing essays. Participating in church gatherings and associations that promote progressive causes. There’s one organization called Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association and I was on their board for several years. This is one of the better kept secrets of the Presbyterian church in that they’ve been in business since the mid-fifties as a mandated ministry of the national missions organization and they champion a number of progressive issues in health, education, and welfare as the name implies. They have a pro-choice network, they call it, and that was the one I was primarily involved with. Also health issues, promoting basically single-payer programs, better access to health care for all.

They also have a Presbyterians for Disabilities Concern Network advocating for people in wheelchairs, and blindness and this kind of thing. But, I was primarily with the health side of it.

Would you say that, for all the spectrum of Presbyterian ministers are you sort of on the left?

I’d be on the left end of the spectrum somewhere, yeah. [chuckles] Most of them tend to be centrist. There’s a few people out on the left end of the branch with me, you might say. And some that are incredibly rightwing. So, we’ve duked it out over the years.

Were you jeopardizing your ministries? Jeopardizing your role in a particular church?

I’ve been fortunate to be associated with congregations that generally have supported me. I worked at St. Helen’s, Oregon for nine years and one of the things that I liked to do was work with the individual elders who are leaders of the committees and so on and get them to take the lead so I’m not the one that’s sticking my neck out all the time and risking, the possibility that some would say, “Oh, that’s just typical Bruce stuff, you know, advocating for equal rights” and what have you. So, I was really pleased at one meeting of our board there was a woman elder and she spoke up and said, “Well, we don’t like this Oregon Citizens Alliance measure we’ve got on the ballot. So, I vote that we take a stand against it.” And it passed. Unanimously.

This is how I like it to be, you know, I talk with people, we talk about resources, we talk about priorities and they take it, and they pick it up and run with it, you know. And it’s not just, “Oh well, that’s Bruce again.”

Well, that’s leadership. If you can convert people to new ideas.

Right. Cause if it’s just me, “It’s easy for him, you know, he’s that way.” So, we made the paper a number of times.. I did. Showed me playing guitar and singin’ songs about it. It seemed like the Presbytery, which is our regional body, was a little bit more progressive, much more progressive then, were probably more likely if it came down to a vote, to come down on the progressive side of issues. I’m talking about, let’s say from during the eighties. Early nineties, in there.

And historically, going clear back. There was always a group of people within the denomination in our area that were pushing for change. Let’s protest the war. Let’s work for equality, what have you. My first church in Montana I was very involved in peacemaking efforts. They had a new program called Peacemaking, the Believer’s Calling. I organized the first conference on that topic for the synod, which extends basically through the Rocky Mountain states. Brought in a national speaker and all this kind of thing. I’ve been doing that kind of stuff for a long period of time. In fact, I’m actually pretty tame these days compared to what I was. [laughs]

But, still. Don’t hesitate to speak my mind. I’ve seen things shift dramatically and a lot of it is just, I think, people of my generation retiring or getting tired of arguing, getting tired of going to these meetings. And I know for a fact that some issues have come up in the regional body of the church — if I could count on all of my friends, I know they would vote with me. We could’ve prevailed. We’ve lost some things, just because …

So, you‘re saying that the Presbyterian Church in this area has gotten more conservative?

Yeah. One of the hot issues today is that many congregations in our denomination are unhappy with the larger picture of things. Especially since we voted to say it was OK if clergy conduct weddings for same-sex couples. That was the one that really pushed ‘em. And many of the same people have been saying for years, “Oh, the Presbyterians are fishy liberals and they don’t read the Bible anymore,” and blah blah blah blah blah.

Fishy liberal, is that a special meaning?

No, it’s just an expression I made up. The argument was we were pushing just a political agenda without any basis in theology or Biblical narrative or what have you. And so they get up, opponents of me, they’d get up and they’d say, “I stand on scripture. I stand on the Bible. I stand on the Bible.” And my response was always, “Well, you must be standing on it, because you certainly aren’t reading it!”

So one of the tendencies lately has been a lot of churches want to withdraw from the denomination and become associated with more fundamentalist denominations. There’s several different churches that call themselves Presbyterian, OK?

Like when I was working in one town in Montana there was First Presbyterian, which was part of our larger national body, the largest of the Presbyterian churches. There was a split off years ago from the people that thought, “Well, these people aren’t conservative enough so we’ll form something called Faith Presbyterian.” Same town but different denomination. And then there was a group within there that’s all, “Oh they’re still not Biblical enough so we’re gonna form another church called the Bible Presbyterian Church.” And they’re all different denominations.

So then there are churches that want to withdraw and take the property with them, of course, because they want to keep that. Even though, in our tradition, the local church does not own the property. The law is it’s held in trust for the whole denomination.

You mentioned a lot of different campaigns you’ve been involved in at one point or another. Anything more recently, would you say?

That’s actually been the most recent. In fact, I was on a committee the Presbytery set up to revise the policy on gracious dismissal. They knew that I was outspoken on it so they put me as one of half a dozen people on it. And that was right when I was getting my hip replaced. So I wasn’t able to participate much. I went to a couple of meetings. The bottom line was they came up with a revision of the policy. They got some other people on there that are really good at writing by-laws and things of this nature. Some people are just really good at getting all the correct spelling and the correct words and all this. They made it about three times longer is all they did. They didn’t really change anything substantially. So, I’m gonna have to figure out [laughs] a way we can torpedo this thing. I’m gonna be workin’ with other people that I know, that I know agree with me. Convince them, number one, go to the meeting. Cause a lot of people don’t like how those meetings get.

This is the thing about property.

Property issues, right.

Cause, you know, we’ve lost a lot of people and I think the whole concept that we just need to be gracious — to my mind there’s a difference between being gracious and being wise, you know. I mean, I think if I could get ‘em to read it I’d recommend a book that’s called [laughs] Anxious to Please: Seven Radical Ideas for the Chronically Nice. It’s a great title. It’s about people that feel the need, for whatever reason, to just placate other people, to be oh so kind! “Why don’t you love me? I’m so nice to you!” That’s been my current thing. Other than doing a little bit of work for Bernie Sanders in the office and such.

You said you did some work in the office for Bernie.

Yeah. I just, you know, they needed somebody to stuff folders for those trying to register voters and that kind of thing. I just did a few thousand of those. And I wish I’d done more. Could’ve gotten on the phone and that, but I just. Anyway.

You did whatever they assigned.

Yeah. He did well in our county so that was amazing to me.

Absolutely. He did well in the state. You mentioned having done something for women’s causes but the only thing I really got out of that was abortion rights, was there anything else?

That was the primary thing. Women’s health care. I was married to a woman who really influenced me a good deal before her untimely death. She and I were well partnered in that regard. She was pretty conservative when I met her and over time she became more outspoken than I was on the progressive side of things. And of course, women’s ordination, too. The wife I referred to was ordained before I was. First woman ordained in the Presbytery of Seattle and we had a heck of a time [trying to get approval] to work as co-pastors. We were one of the first couples in that capacity.

There was a lot of suspicion on the part of traditional minded elders, you know. “Who’s gonna be the boss?” “What happens if you don’t agree on something?” You know, so “We’ll work it out.” It was difficult to get a fair hearing. Now there’s all kinds of clergy couples and many, many clergywomen. If you asked me, “What do you think about clergywomen?” I’d have to respond well, which ones are you talking about? It’s like asking, “What do you think of clergy who are males?”

I was happy to be one of the first people being pulled in that direction by a conscious woman. And I think it’s just about equal now in seminaries as far as male/female enrollment. Maybe even more women today.

What are the most interesting and satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist?

I would say, some of the people I’ve met. When I was in college one of the people that was probably most influential on me was Dr. Giovanni Costigan who was a history professor. Little Irish guy, a professor of British history. And also an amazing debater. An amazing spokesperson for progressive causes. He’s the one that would debate the conservative people that the university would bring around, and one time William Buckley was brought to town and this Giovanni Costigan just sliced him to shreds, verbally.

And he also brought in at that time Muhammad Ali and introduced him. And that was quite an experience there, to hear Muhammad Ali talking about the war and racism and this kind of thing. This was back in the late sixties. Early seventy, late sixties. Anyway, so the people I’ve met I have to say have been the best memories.

When things get rough, what sustains you?

I’m not entirely sure if I can give a specific answer to that except to say that I am a very persistent person by nature and when I hit a wall, when I hit a roadblock my tendency is to just step back and kind of rethink it, re-strategize it and try another approach. I could say, ‘Well, God gave me that gift,’ or whatever but, for whatever reason, there was a synod executive that heard me make a presentation on the floor of Presbytery one time and my side carried the day. And part of it was because I pulled out a newspaper article from about five years previously and referenced that in my presentation. And this fellow, this exec says to me afterward, he says, “I think the biggest mistake that your opponents made was to underestimate Bruce Cameron.”

I’ll hold on to that one. Cause, yeah, I think it’s true. I’m pretty resilient. And if I get road blocked I find another way to go.

 

About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at sylviahartwright.com There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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