Penn Friends connected to IndiaPublished 9:15am Friday, September 18, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
CASSOPOLIS – Purpose drives growing 172-year-old Penn Friends Community Church, 19107 Quaker St., which dedicated a new sanctuary Oct. 6, 2002, to accommodate attendance increasing from 60 to more than 200.
Its 33 ministries run the gamut from a rack of homemade greeting cards to sending Pastor Bill Bruneau to India twice a year so its healing impact can be felt 18,000 miles away from a community of 1,400 in the middle of a cornfield.
These small ministry groups work on big problems – cancer, chemical dependency, depression.
Bruneau, who first visited India 30 years ago in 1979, leads a congregation which so embodies the five Biblical mandates: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and mission that it fills three pages in the fall 2009 edition of the glossy international magazine Purpose Driven Connection as a quarterly recipient of The Connected Church Award.
He leaves Monday for India, which he says is depicted accurately in the Oscar-winning film, “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“In India, there is no ‘American dream’ (of upward mobility) unless someone shows them how to get out of the slums. That’s what it’s like in the Mumbai slums,” he said. “Pastors labor under the threat of violence to do what they’re called to do. I go there and provide some pastors with maybe the only training they’ve had.” His first trip he met with more than 800 pastors.
India, an extreme “melting pot,” exposed him to “the stark contrast between poverty the likes of which we’ve never seen and wealth beyond our imagination. In ‘Slumdog’ you see the Taj Mahal and the slums of Mumbai.”
“If you go to India with an American mind set,” Bruneau said, you’re not going to do very well. You need to go there and do your best to embrace their culture. People don’t realize that slums are cities within themselves, with their own structure. When I first went I took pictures of the poverty and brought them back to show people who teared up. I don’t do that anymore. That’s their culture. They’re used to that. That’s part of their lives. I come back and try and tell people about India and why people think the way they think and are entrapped in slavery.”
He’s referring to the Dalits, or “Untouchables,” whose lot has been bondage for more than 3,000 years. Penn Friends support Dalit children so they receive education and nutrition, whether they’re Christians or not.
Behind his desk hangs a photo of Bill and “Rick,” as in Warren, the phenomenally successful pastor of huge Saddleback Church in California who gave the prayer at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January.
“This is an indication of what we have yet to do – not what we’ve done,” says Bruneau, a Connecticut native called to this pulpit 11 years ago by way of General Motors in Indianapolis.
The most notable feature of the sanctuary is enough gear to accommodate nine musicians making joyful noise, including a 32-channel mixer, guitars, a piano and percussion, including congas.
Bill is a percussionist. His son in broadcasting with LeSea, Michael, who for a time was on the air in Dowagiac, is a drummer with a band of his own.
Bruneau, 62, has been known to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle down the aisle between the pews to illustrate a sermon about the enticement of possessions.
Another sermon revolved around The Three Pigs to make the point of building a proper foundation. He anticipates revisiting that theme when he returns from the Indian state of Gujarat.
Bruneau, who used to supplement his preaching pay by donning the brown uniform of a Cass County deputy sheriff, continues his ministry there as head road chaplain and a member of the emergency response team which swings into action when there is a fatality or suspicious death.
Notifying victims’ families falls to him.
Warren’s book, “40 Days of Purpose,” inspired such outreach.
Working in law enforcement not only added to an eclectic resume which includes promoting Christian concerts and broadcasting, but heightened his appreciation for the kinds of afflictions families grapple with, from dysfunctinonal relationships to drug and alcohol addictions.
According to the magazine article, which Bruneau wishes focused less on him and more on the church, he is credited with “transforming a placid, tradition-bound Quaker church into a house of worship bustling with vigor and innovation,” which he likened to “turning a battleship in a swimming pool.”
The result is a church as diverse as Cass County, with Caucasians, African Americans and Hispanics worshipping side by side. He made it his personal goal to attract folks who had given up on church – or whose churches gave up on them.
One lesson from Warren’s writing is that anything done in honor of God constitutes worship.
For someone who didn’t want to be in Cassopolis the first time he saw it, it’s hard to recall a time when the pastor, who served on Cassopolis Village Council, wasn’t in the thick of community life.
He serves with an AIDS organization and on the Cass County Drug Court panel, which strives to reunite parents and children separated by dependency arrests.
Passion usually illuminates Bruneau, but he really lights up talking about India, where he teaches Christian pastors in a Hindu caste society how to lead purpose-driven churches.
Bruneau’s own journey seems to have taken him 18,000 miles from the days he made fun of Christians.
Growing up in a Connecticut city of 70,000, and rooting for the New York Yankees, he attended the Connecticut School of Broadcasting and learned to believe only what he could see, hear or touch.
After six years in radio, Bruneau joined GM in Bristol, Conn., and began his climb through the managerial ranks. He professed his faith in Jesus Christ in 1977.
His wife, Bobbie, who works for the nearby Cass County Council on Aging, he said he met on her 16th birthday when her boyfriend asked him to dedicate a song to her.
After Mike’s miraculous healing from epileptic seizures, Bill left GM in 1980 to follow his pastoral calling. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Breadloaf Bible College in Burlington, N.C.
In 1994, he completed a master of divinity degree from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.
India “is not like the United States,” he said. “We do truly have freedom of religion. Where I go there are anti-conversion laws, which basically say if they want to change from one religion to the next, say Hindu to Christianity, they have to get permission in writing from a local official, who is usually a Hindu. Although people would like to tell you the caste system doesn’t exist, it thrives. Not everyone is called to go, but I made my first trip in 1979 when I worked for General Motors as an almost brand-spanking-new Christian. The trip changed my life. A year later I resigned from GM and went into fulltime ministry. India really put an exclamation mark on my time separating from General Motors into fulltime ministry. For some inexplicable reason, I had a real compassion and love for the people of India and always wanted to go back, but the door never opened to go back until 2007. I was out in California at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, accepting a church health award that they awarded to Penn. They mentioned would any of us be willing to go anywhere in the world and to share with other pastors what we learned. My hand shot right up. My wife was smiling because she knew it would.”
Warren said they would go without saying where. When Bruneau informed a church official he desired to go to India, “His eyes got as big as half dollars” because “that’s where we’re going!” in March 2007.
“There were no denominational barriers at all,” he said. “It was an amazing time” ministering in small slum churches for 10 days.
Bruneau explains, “Missions aren’t the same as they used to be. It used to be you sent a missionary who lived there. That doesn’t work. We’re called to equip and train local pastors so they can do the work of ministry. It just makes sense. They speak the language, they understand the culture. I think there are about 15 of us who are commissioned by Saddleback to go there and teach the purpose-driven paradigm. We raise our own finances to go, but India is actually very inexpensive once you get past the airfare. I stay in an Indian hotel for pennies on the dollar. I love Indian food, the culture, the people. I go by myself. I’ve made some very close friends in India since 2007. I’ve developed a Facebook page where about 20 of us communicate back and forth. There is also a Web site, pastors.com, where Indian pastors can gather resources to use in their own churches and to exchange ideas and communicate with each other. All of this was given birth in 2007 when we were the first ones to go, which was pretty exciting to me.”
Bruneau said it started with evangelist Billy Graham and a year-long crusade which reached tens of thousands of people.
“It can only be a God-ordained network the way it was put together,” Bruneau said. “The most important thing to recognize is that it’s a God thing. The Lord has really made a way for the teaching to take place. They’re like sponges, soaking up everything they can. There are some large Christian churches” going back to colonial ties with Britain.
“Where I go,” he said, “you can have a dirt floor, a stick roof and 300 people packed in. They’ll travel 15 to 20 miles to church, which for them is a day’s journey in ox carts. Some have cars, but it’s a major commitment to be a Christian. Not only are they committing their life to Christ, they’re committing their life, which they could lose for following Christ. My last trip a young couple with two young children in the major city where I go, Ahmedabad, came from a Hindu family, but had embraced Jesus Christ as their savior. Their whole family disowned them. That happens in India, but there is such an explosion of the church in India right now. The Christian church is growing despite persecution.
“I’d like to think that Penn Friends Community Church, this church that sends me and supports me, has an outreach ministry 18,000 miles away that touches thousands and thousands of lives and hundreds of pastors. If you tell a Hindu that God made us in His own image and likeness, they’re shocked. The Hindu faith is nothing like that. They have more Gods than we have politicians. Every home will have a God. If you’re nice to them, they’ll make you a God. We had a man here from South India on Sunday night. Last year we had the president of the All-India Christian Council. He’s a big guy in India. It opened the eyes of the people in our church. It moved us out of the cornfields of Cassopolis and exposes us to a whole different world, which is healthy.”