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

December 12, 1985|LARRY GORDON | 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."

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.

"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."

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."

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