The Reverend Don Bradley may have thought he was retiring five years ago, but he soon found out there was a different plan in store for him.
Now he’s the spiritual leader of the Beacon of Hope Church, founded in 2014 by a group of Islanders looking to form a new evangelical church. Rev. Bradley had been pastor of Second Baptist Church in South Hadley, Mass., for approximately 22 years, and was looking forward to spending more time in the house he and his wife built on the Island in the late 1980s.
As luck would have it, an incident from the past resurfaced and now he’s leading a small but growing congregation on Martha’s Vineyard.
Approximately 15 years ago, his daughter Allison was waitressing in Western Mass., and a customer, Squire Rushnell, had just spoken at Smith College about one of his books on Godwinks, “coincidences” that don’t feel like coincidence, but instead seem to have a connection to a divine source.
Rushnell asked Allison about herself and during their conversation, she told him her father was a minister. Years later, Rev. Bradley and his wife Gayle were attending a service at the Federated Church in Edgartown, and one of the speakers was Rushnell.
“My wife said, ‘That’s him, that’s the guy from the restaurant!’” Rev. Bradley told me during a visit to his West Tisbury home last weekend. They soon met Rushnell and the two had lunch in Edgartown, where Rushnell lives with his wife Louise DuArt, a comedic actress and impersonator. Rushnell was a successful television executive at Good Morning America, the founder of Schoolhouse Rock, and is responsible for many ABC Afterschool Specials. He’s the author of several books about “Godwinks,” and tours as a motivational speaker as well. Rushnell and his wife, along with some other like-minded Islanders, reached out to Rev. Bradley about forming a new church.
“About 11 months after my retirement. I was asked by a group of people to start a church on the Island,” Rev. Bradley said. “I was surprised by the whole thing, and I had multiple meetings with this group, making sure they knew this was the right thing for them. I accepted this invitation to have a church planted in Edgartown.”
With a congregation of around 60 regular members, Beacon of Hope meets at the Edgartown School Sundays at 10 am. They have men’s and women’s groups and Sunday school for children. This past Sunday the children stood for a blessing with the valentines they made to take over to Windemere. The sermon was on social justice in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History month, something Rev. Bradley thinks evangelical churches overlook at times. He went to college for football in the late 1960s in North Carolina, and said he remembers what that was like.
“I’ll be talking about Martin Luther King and his dream, social justice, and what I saw in North Carolina in the 60s and tying in my experience,” Rev. Bradley said before his sermon. “The church has to be interested in not only salvation but also be concerned about the plight of people and being salt and light to people.”
A former football player and coach, the Rev. Bradley serves his church very much like a coach, cheering them on and preaching in a way that would make it impossible to fall asleep in church.
He’s 68 years old and looking forward to slowing down, but still very much a part of the new Island church. He’s been married to Gayle for 47 years and in church ministry for 40 years, having been ordained after graduating from Bangor Theological Seminary in 1977 with a master’s of divinity. He first served at Community Baptist Church in Whitefield, N.H., then at churches outside of Pittsburgh, and in Connecticut, where he’s originally from, before landing at the South Hadley Church, which he left in 2012.
Rev. Bradley and his wife have three grown children and nine grandsons. Their oldest grandson, Luke, is their son Ryan’s son. Ryan followed in his father’s footsteps and served at the Second Baptist Church in South Hadley as well. Luke has been battling leukemia for six years, and the congregations at their churches pray for him regularly.
“It’s been a struggle,” Rev. Bradley said. “We exist on the prayers of the righteous who pray for us every day.”
Rev. Bradley splits his time between Western Mass. and the Island, keeping close to his family when he’s not preaching at Beacon of Hope.
One of his loftiest goals as far as the Island goes, is to help promote a revival of Christianity, especially, he says, in light of the history of the Campground.
“At one time the Island was a seabed of wonderful spirituality and loving Christians. There were a lot of big revivals here. My hope is that the churches would all be growing and moving forward,” Rev. Bradley said.
He and the pastor of the Assembly of God Church are trying to come up with a plan for a combined Good Friday service at the Old Whaling Church this year.
“Being a football player and coach, I know that you’re only as good as your team,” Rev. Bradley said. “It’s people and it’s God moving people’s hearts and it’s a team effort [being in charge of a congregation]. It’s like when I was a head coach for a high school team; you learn you can’t go play the game yourself from the sidelines but you’re watching your team win the game. I was amazed that the congregation pulled together and we began to grow. The philosophy of teamwork and what I learned in football, obviously I carried with me. God working with a team of people can do some tremendous things.”
Well, maybe we can all watch and see how the spirit moves him.
Yesterday, Wednesday, Feb. 14, marked Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent in the Christian tradition. Many churches distributed ashes, including the First Baptist Church in Vineyard Haven, which offered ashes in the morning and afternoon and planned to follow it up with a 5 pm service with the church’s pastor, the Reverend Leo D. Christian.
The Federated Church in Edgartown offers a Lenten devotional discussion titled “Following the Way,” on Thursday evenings at 7 pm in the Mayhew parsonage and on Monday mornings at 10 am at the church’s parish house.
“Silence, Scripture, and Singing,” a contemplative Lenten worship, is planned at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury on Mondays throughout Lent, beginning Feb. 19. Everyone will gather at 5:20 pm and the service begins at 5:30 pm. Childcare is available if you need it.
Kick off your Lenten journey with “Mindfulness and Christian Contemplative Practice” — billed as a respite for busy, responsible people — with Ethel Fraga, planned for this Saturday, Feb. 17, from 10 am to 3 pm at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown.
“Ethel has studied with some of the great contemporary spiritual leaders, including Thomas Keating, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sharon Salzberg, and Bede Griffiths,” pastor of the church, Father Chip Seadale, wrote to me in an email. “In these chaotic times, this is really about cultivating a method for stress reduction and inner peace.”
Cost is $30 for the day and you can bring a bag lunch to the event. For more information and to sign up, call either 508-627-9946 or 508-627-5330.
The Reverend Charlotte Wright at Chilmark Community Church offers an adult Lenten bible study on Tuesdays from 10 to 11:30 am throughout Lent. The study focuses on the book “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem.” Call 508-645-3100 for more information.
Stations of the Cross are observed at St. Augustine’s Church on Fridays during Lent, beginning this Friday, Feb. 16, at 6 pm. The church also invites you to sign up for a free email program that guides you on the 40 days of Lent, go to BestLentEver.com and sign up.