Each Sunday morning, the Rev. Brad Braxton stands where Dr. Martin Luther King stood when he shook America by speaking out against the Vietnam War, 365 days before his assassination.
Braxton has joined the ranks of social and political giants, including Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan, who have addressed the nation and the world from the pulpit of Manhattan’s interdenominational Riverside Church.
“Every Sunday,” Braxton says, “I stand in a place where prophets and presidents have stood.”
Less than 20 years after his University graduation and a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, Braxton (Col ’91) is Riverside’s new senior minister, which is the culmination of a momentous journey that could not have happened, he says, without the foundation of scholarship and leadership he received as a Jefferson Scholar.
“I consider this to be the flowering of things that were planted in the soil many years ago,” says Braxton, a pastor’s son who grew up in Salem, Va.
Riverside is one of the grand Gothic churches of the 20th century, built 80 years ago with Rockefeller money and famed for an unparalleled bell tower that stands 22 stories high. Inside, though, Braxton’s office is significantly more modest, and three months after his arrival in September, a wall of bookshelves sits mostly empty, waiting for the boxes on the floor to be unpacked.
With a staff of 120 people and a congregation of more than 2,000, Braxton has had plenty to do. But he has always been willing to work hard. As a religious studies major at the University, he recalls, he studied a minimum of four hours at his desk each day, working diligently to make the most of the opportunity offered by his full scholarship.
Shaped already by his father’s ministry, Braxton learned from professors such as Harry Gamble and Nathan Scott about Christian scriptures as both sacred texts and historical documents. He learned to marry the intellectual and the spiritual in his oration—“the passion and precision,” as he calls it.
Braxton began his graduate study at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and pursued a doctorate at Emory University before becoming, at 26, the senior minister at Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore.
In 2000, he left Douglas to continue his development as a theological scholar, but he was ready to resume his ministry when Riverside began seeking a successor to retiring Rev. James Forbes in September 2007.
A year later, as the nation welcomes a new president, Braxton sounds not unlike Barack Obama when he speaks passionately and thoughtfully about social activism, racial reconciliation and interfaith dialogue. Braxton is excited about the new administration. “Now is a marvelous moment,” he says, “when we can turn the national discourse to one that’s more generous and hopeful.”
“This is a time,” Braxton says, “for us to look at the ways in which religion and spirituality can undergird helpful and healing conversations. Helpful and healing conversations about bringing together disparate, divergent, diverse communities. Not allowing religion to be that which divides, but allowing religion and spirituality to be that which brings together human communities.”