Woog's World / "Rev. John Branson and Westport's 'good bones'"

For generations, Episcopalians were known as "the Republican Party of prayer." They were largely white, often professional people -- the bedrocks of their community. Of course, bedrock doesn't move much.

Except when it does.

Over the past few decades, the ground has shifted in the Episcopal Church. "Seismic" may be too dramatic, but today's Episcopalians clearly reflect the cultural currents sweeping through American society. They've ordained women and gay people as priests -- and elected them to high offices. Such changes have not pleased all Episcopalians -- but they excite John Branson.

Reared in New Hampshire, and the product of an Episcopalian boarding school, he has served as Christ and Holy Trinity Church's minister here for a fifth of a century. Despite his elite background -- and his tenure in one of the wealthiest towns in the country -- Rev. Branson is excited by the ongoing challenge "to embrace the poor, the disenfranchised, the lost and forgotten."

And yes, they're here -- in Westport.

"There is a certain irony in being part of a church that -- certainly in this town -- is blessed with extraordinary financial and human resources," Branson says. "Christ & Holy Trinity reflects the tremendous resources the town of Westport offers.

"Yet at the same time, there are people in our church who are lost and poor, both financially and spiritually. They may not even recognize it."

Rev. Branson's task, he says, is to help them understand the richness of a life in faith.

"My primary work in Westport," he explains, "is to empower those who are culturally very powerful, but have not tapped into the power of their faith selves."

How does he do that?

"For some it takes a crisis," he says. "For others it might be a jolt to the system -- financial, health, emotional, something that takes us off the tracks we're running on, and forces us to see who we are. And `whose' we are."

Many Westporters, Branson says, travel on rails that seem predestined. When their life is derailed somehow, he can minister to them. He teaches and preaches, and they become aware of a life beyond those rails.

After 20 years in Westport, Branson has established deep roots in the community. He understands the depths of Westporters' struggles -- individually, and as families -- in a way he did not when he first arrived. That allows him to go beneath the surface -- the big homes, fancy cars, status addresses -- and into the living rooms and kitchens of his parishioners. There, he addresses "the issues everyone struggles with, every day."

In some respects, Branson says, Westport is less faith-oriented than other towns. "It's incredibly hard to live here," he notes. "But there is a certain ease with which people move in and through the community. That makes it easy to let our faith become a lower priority."

Still, he does not sense that Westporters are less faithful today than when he arrived. The challenge, Branson says, is to make sure people do not forget "the truths we learned from our parents and grandparents."

He cites Tracy Sugarman as a man Westporters should look up to. "He's a man of courage, of great faith and principles," Branson says. "We should gravitate to people like that. They remind us of the principles this town had in the 1940s and '50s -- and still has today. They remind us of the things that matter, and that we need to stand up for them."

As examples, Branson cites the ABC House, Westport's Department of Human Services, and Homes With Hope. He also praises the work of colleagues like Ted Hoskins, Peter Powell, Bob Orkand and Frank Hall -- fellow clergymen who, from a variety of pulpits, have made significant differences in Westporters' lives.

Twenty years in one church is, Branson admits, "somewhat unusual" -- though his predecessor at Chris & Holy Trinity, Rev. Dana Forrest Kennedy, was there for 29. His congregation -- and people in Westport generally -- have kept him here, and kept him engaged, he says. (Living near the water is an added bonus.)

His time here has taught him compassion, he says, as well as "finding the balance between self and community." He has learned "how to be one's own person in the context of a community," as well as "how to share gifts and resources."

Westport is a very giving place, he says. "People step up and go to bat for causes and issues." Staples High School Tuition Grants, Near and Far Aid, the PAL, backpacks for children in the fall -- those, and "every weekend a different fundraiser," has heartened him. "There is a real outpouring of commitment to serve others," Branson says.

He is energized by Westport students, too. "Kids here are dynamic, alive, aware," he says. "They're inward looking, like all adolescents, but they also look outward, to the world."

Over the past few years, Christ & Holy Trinity has welcomed new young families. It's not easy getting them deeply involved in the church -- the demands on their, and their kids', time are tremendous -- but Branson is invigorated by what they bring to his congregation and town.

Ahead is a building project: a new parish hall, and additional meeting spaces. When that's completed, Branson says, he may step aside. "I would love to use my experience in another setting, where I might be able to help folks a little bit more my age."

It will not be easy leaving Westport. "As they say about houses, this town has `good bones,'" Branson notes. "There is a strong core here. People will continue to care for their neighbors -- near and far."