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.