Mike's story

Used by permission of Mike 

This is the text version of an article which appeared in Mike's local paper. I hope to add an image of the actual article in case anybody doubts it was actually published.

The Kingdom and the King

An Elvis impersonating minister recounts the politics of charismatic religion

By Patrick Leonard

The welcome embrace is a part of the ritual at the Meeting Place. It's been a week since the congregation last met at the downtown Fredericton church, but they greet each other like old friends, hugs exchanged as liberally as smiles. As a request to begin the service crackles through the amplifier, the congregation arrange themselves on the crescent of worn, brown chairs. The greetings will have to wait.

In the third row from the front sits a man who once led the meeting here. His hair is a deep black, with thick sideburns neatly aligned with his earlobe. It’s different being here without his wife and four children, but he’s comfortable. Many things are different since his last visit, he says. A lot can change in a year.

Mike Bravener has come back because he has this Sunday off from the church upriver where he is the part-time pastor. He comes from a family of lapsed Catholics, and found faith from a street corner evangelist on a walk home from school in Saint John, his hometown. Soon he was attending a Baptist church, an experience so formative he decided to become a pastor, to minister to the only religious family he’d ever known.

But that came long before The Meeting Place. The charismatic services held here encourage the physical expression of spiritual experience, the music of the worship band swaying the crowd in unison. Charismatic worship can include healing rituals and speaking in tongues. But music is the heart of the experience.

Bravener absorbs the music played at the meeting place this morning, and notes that the only Grammy’s won by Elvis Presley were for gospel songs. He may have Elvis on his mind this morning. For it was here he discovered how difficult it is for a man to have an allegiance to both the Kingdom, and the King.

Ten years ago, Bravener was the assistant pastor at Grace Memorial Baptist church in Fredericton, in his early 30's and full of ideas. It was feared at that time that the church doors would close, that one Sunday morning the pews would be vacant as the first sad notes from the organ rang through the sanctuary. But these fears brought a changing attitude toward worship.

"A group of us were really coming alive in our faith," says Bravener. Weekly Wednesday night meetings were moving toward something distinctly charismatic. Bravener remembers how it began, how during one October meeting people just started falling out of their chairs. As much as Bravener and then Pastor Don Robertson wanted this sort of spiritual openness, there was concern about its consequences for the church community.

"Once word got out, we knew it was going to be a rough ride," he says.

And so it was. In 2005, most Baptist churches host "contemporary" charismatic services, but 10 years previous it was almost unheard of. A group of 14 congregation members complained in a letter to the church's governing board, who, recognizing the damage a fissure could cause the church, asked Bravener and the Pastor to resign. There was an immediate appeal for their reinstatement, which required the support of 75% of the congregation. Bravener says he fell just short, and although the Pastor was approved, 80 to 100 people "just got up and left."

It was a part of that group that formed The Meeting Place in the following months. Led by Bravener and his friend Joe Crummey, a group of fewer than 10 would meet in homes, a hotel, and other locations for the better part of three years. Bravener says that they knew they wanted to have a church based on a new model. A church, he says, for people who don't go to church.

The concept was attracting people. By 1999 The Meeting Place was outgrowing its temporary Northside home, and one day, on a particularly inspired walk Bravener realized they needed a downtown location - somewhere "at the heart of the city." The first realtor he called had just taken a listing for the hall occupied by the masonic International Order of Odd fellows on Brunswick st. The group moved in, and within three months had purchased the building. The Meeting Place had found a permanent home.

In spite of their uniqueness, Bravener felt it important for their public image that the group be connected to denomination.

"I didn't want people thinking we were a cult," he says. He had heard of a charismatic network called New Frontiers, and in 1997 contacted a man named Dave Fellingham from England for assistance in incorporating the meeting into the larger body. Fellingham encouraged them to develop of a system of church Elders, and a governing "Apostle" - a position which Fellingham continues to hold. Bravener says that he struggled with the idea of an chief authority in the church, but that it had been more important to just continue reaching out to people than to voice his concerns.

The outreach theme had preoccupied Bravener's sermons for some time before he realized that perhaps he wasn't doing enough of it himself. He examined his life, and saw that sharing his love of music might be the best way for him to connect with people.

Apart from preaching, Bravener performed singing telegrams and had played classic-country tunes at local venues. At parties he would perform as several characters; a "nerd-man", and a clown that featured prominently - always with balloon animals. On a summer trip to Ontario, he heard about a competition for Elvis Presley impersonators in Collingwood, near where he was visiting family. The annual festival is the largest of its kind, and Bravener, after watching the competitors, thought "I could do that."

He purchased a wig and a sequin jumpsuit, and had soon incorporated the Elvis character into his act. After some practice he began performing as Elvis at a local 1950's style diner, and feeling confident, entered the Collingwood festival the following year. There were 60 Elvises to beat and the competition was fierce, but his rank of 14th looked good on the first- time competitor. He left with some advise on improving his Elvis, and after working on hair, make up and a bit of vocals he was ready to return. On his second attempt he placed 9th. But better than the rewards of performing were the friendships he formed off-stage, and sometimes, seeing that new face in the church Sunday morning.

But at The Meeting Place relations were getting worse with the same pace with which Bravener's Elvis act had improved. While visits from Fellingham continued, Bravener sensed a change in priorities surfacing in the church.

" I wanted to have the freedom to do what they felt like [during services]," he says, recalling days when puppets were used in storytelling, and people danced and sang different words, everyone open and uninhibited, spiritually alive. But the move away from the initial intentions of the church was growing swiftly toward what Bravener calls a more self-serving model. He voiced his concerns to Fellingham and the elders, who told him that the principles were not changing, would not change. It was he that was losing perspective.

There had been speculation by Fellingham about a conflict between Bravener's performing and Pastoral life. According to Crummey, Fellingham thought Bravener was giving to much time to Elvis impersonating. Bravener was asked to consider switching to a more admissible Roy Orbison act. He says that while he understood that there was some objection to his act, no one could tell him just what the problem was. Even now he is not sure.

Crummey says that Bravener had not fully considered what he was doing.

"As a Christian, you have to ask yourself 'is this really what I want to be modeling?' " But Crummey is unclear about just what Bravener models in his act. He says that some people will remember Elvis as a gospel singer, and some as a proponent of the sexual revolution, but is reluctant to say directly which best represents the singer. The only stand he takes is away from the stage.

" I could not [perform as Elvis] myself, morally," he says.

When the church Elders asked Bravener to stop performing, he compared his activities to playing softball on weekends; it was a hobby and it wasn’t hurting the church. But their request stood, and for two months his performing was sidelined.

Then in mid 2003, the Elders decided that Bravener had to go. Over a period of three months the man who had given so much to the church was told he was the worst pastor they had ever heard. It was said that the spirit no longer worked through him - an important charismatic concept - meaning he had no claim to Pastor's position. Bravener says all this was rooted in their feelings about his performing life. He was crushed. He felt betrayed, his friends upset, he says, because he had made balloon animals for children.

Crummey remembers it differently. "Elvis was not the main issue, there were other things too," he says. " It was one of the easiest things that opened the doors to other areas of concern. But it was just one piece of the puzzle."

Bravener was given three options; to resign as Elder and Pastor, remain in the church, and allow them to develop his spirituality to something more suitable. He could resign as Elder, leave the church and receive some funding should he choose to start a new one, or, he could just leave. So he left.

Bravener's son Andrew was at the Meeting place the day Fellingham announced that Bravener would be leaving, and that Joe Crummey would take his place as Pastor.

"They basically lied to everyone, said that my dad was taking a leave of absence. They didn't say it, but it was all because of Elvis. They just wanted to give it more meat," he says.

The meeting place history records the events this way: "...it was agreed upon that...Mike would begin to explore other opportunities and areas of ministry more suited to his giftings."

Crummey says they had no intention to hurt the family. The Meeting continued to pay Bravener a full salary for the first three months after he left the church. Following that, he was given three months half salary.

"Really, we were on Mike's side," he says.

Not long afterward, Bravener and his son played a few live songs at a local radio station. As they left the studio his son said "Dad, I'm glad you got kicked out of the meeting place." Bravener laughs and says that he was right, that he might not have be allowed to do the things he loves if he were still the Pastor there. That maybe he wouldn't be truly happy.

In 2004 he formed a country band with several local youth, and placed second in Collingwood's Elvis competition. He has also started an open meeting at his home on Thursday nights; once again targeting people who don't attend church, but might if they found the right one. Bravener is quietly excited about where this might lead.

"We're thinking about launching again," he says. "Picking up what was abandoned."

Bravener says he is a dreamer. On stage he seems to live those dreams; wearing a guitar and a sequined jacket, standing before his antique microphone, he is both here and in another place. Smile broad, he stares through the lights at the people in the dark room, loving every moment.

"We're having fun," he says. "It's a good life right now." he says.