BY JACK SHORT – Pastor Brian Brightly is a remarkably energetic speaker and a progressive thinker. I confess I’ve never attended a sermon given by the pastor – but I spent a week in Cuba with the man and had a few long conversations besides. I also learned it may be necessary to interject more forcefully if you hope to change the direction of the conversation, but the passion, energy, and frankness evident in any exchange are compelling, to say the least. It’s little wonder he’s had such an unusually long tenure as pastor of the Boca Grande United Methodist Church.
Brian is well traveled — over the course of his missionary life he’s been on repeated, extended trips to Africa and Cuba, and spent part of his life living in and visiting Russia, which is also where he met his wife, Irina.
Brian said he never wanted to be a church pastor – but his desire for ministry was strong. He felt it in high school as the leader of a youth group in New Jersey. He graduated from Taylor University with a degree in communications, and from New York Theological Seminary with a Master’s degree in Divinity. He also took film courses at Columbia University.
Brian was ordained in the mid-’60s, during the height of the civil rights era, and given charge of a multi-racial ministry in which he said he saw a lot of conflict.
Brian continued his education at Boston University, studying broadcasting and developing further interest in the relationship between the church and the media. Later, he became executive director of TV for the State Educational Department, producing network programs for children in New York.
While completing doctoral education courses at Boston College, Brian was recruited by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to serve as education project director in Washington D.C. for three years. There, he funded and supervised children’s television programs and worked with young people at a Maryland church.
He went on to become director of education for National Public Radio in 1979 and remained there until 1984. He established college courses and open learning at the University of Wisconsin and Penn State. He created the audio library at NPR.
After being hired by United Methodist Communication in New York to implement and improve communications for Methodist conferences nationally, Brian was offered, in 1991, an opportunity to go to Russia, which he said changed his life and made him understand he wanted to be a pastor.
“It was my Russian experience that really focused me,” he said, “after 30 years of Christianity.”
He lived in Russia by himself for a full year and continued to visit over the course of three more, producing a radio program called Religious Digest.
Brian’s timing was auspicious, but not without challenges. Russia was relinquishing a 50 year grip on the religious practices of its people, suppressing certain churches and planting KGB operatives in others.
He said he saw the need for spirituality carried especially in older generations. But the only churches allowed access under new religious laws did not include Methodists, until a legal appeal was made.
Living in that country, he saw tremendous economic hardship and a thriving black market, which he would see again later in countries like Cuba.
“At that time, a bottle of Stolichnaya was $2.50 and a bottle of water was $3.50,” he said. “We had to live with a bartering system.”
He saw Siberian prisons, priests baptizing robed men in the freezing Bulga River and elderly women worshipping in hallways and alcoves – all of which, to Brian, showed a hunger for spirituality that had been building during the years of religious repression.
He did not know anyone in Russia before moving there, but his manager’s wife’s cousin convinced a friend to go on a date with Brian. She had a degree in chemical engineering and worked for a Russo-Italian firm.
After courting for two years, he married Irina in 1996.
After he returned from Russia, Brian was appointed to a church as associate pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida. Eventually, he was appointed at Miramar Church and then Trinity Church, both in Florida, from which he conducted missions in Jamaica and established a sisterhood with churches in Pinar del Rio, Cuba.
He also established shortwave communications networks in Africa to help carry out AIDS education there. Brian said he was profoundly moved by the African Bishops’ sacrifices.
“These were guys whose lives were threatened daily,” he said.
Brian came to the Boca Grande United Methodist Church in 2003, and took over a church with long-established local traditions and entrenched local leadership – which in some ways contradicted the dynamic movement of leadership the Methodist Church has established.
During his time at BGUMC he has guided the church through its reconstruction. His days at the little Boca Grande church will end this summer, and he will begin a new leg in life’s journey.
Brian’s motto, paraphrasing Jesus Christ of course, “The truth will set you free,” is not surprising given his candor. He has progressive views on the role of the church as a force for social change in places like Cuba, where the BGUMC carries out missions with their sister churches in Mayari.
Brian will happily discuss neurological phenomena as readily as he will discuss faith. He is focused and acts, saying people must be known by their works, which is why he has focused on missionary work – and hopes the church will continue that work with its new pastor.
He said he and Irina will stay in their house, just off-island, where she continues to teach music and he will become a coaching professional, mediating conflicts at churches between personnel there. He will also continue his work for the Lee County Sheriff’s department as a religious counselor.
They both enjoy tennis and Brian said he likes to fish, though his boat has gone to Davy Jones’ locker (he didn’t specify how), and he also enjoys the exercise he gets from walking the golf course.
He seems unsure of the adjustment he’ll face as, after so long as an integral part of so much of his congregation’s life, but his cheerful optimism is only occasionally mitigated by a moment of uncertainty or doubt.
He is buoyed by the work he’s done and the changes he’s seen here in Boca Grande. A man once told him, “I used to think my faith was private, but after seven years of listening to you I know it’s not. I must be a witness.”