Father Bob and I were sitting in a room at the downtown Episcopal church in Boston. There were four others in our small circle. We were part of a city-wide ecumenical program of luncheon devotions for Lent that involved most of the Boston churches, Protestant and Catholic. We were leading the devotions for that day. From all the congregations in Boston only these four people showed up. I had worked hard to prepare something special for the big ecumenical turn-out. But only four people showed up. I was depressingly fixated on “four!” But Father Bob smiled and said these were God’s four. Numbers don’t matter. He taught me a lesson that would be key for a journey of faithfulness in peacemaking.
Father Bob Branconnier was the priest at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Dorchester, Boston’s largest neighborhood. I pastored at Dorchester Temple Baptist Church, and we met in neighborhood clergy gatherings. We quickly became friends as we discovered common interests both in community development issues and in peacemaking. He was maybe twenty years old than me so I looked up to him as a mentor as well as a colleague in ministry.
However he learned it along the way, Father Bob’s witness showed far greater concern for faithful witness than numbers. For many years he served a parish in North Dakota. At that time if North Dakota has seceded from the Union it would have become the world’s third largest nuclear power. U.S. nuclear missile silos were scattered throughout the farmland. When Minutemen or MX missiles would be test fired Father Bob would trek down to the missile bases to stand in solitary witness against the preparations for nuclear war. It would often be just him holding his peace sign in front of a chain-linked and barbed wire fence surrounded by military police.
Later in New England he joined the resistance to the Cold War by trespassing onto nuclear weapons production facilities. He said he wasn’t agile enough to climb the fences, so he would find the inevitable gaps to slip through. He was not one of the “plowshares,” protesters who would try to damage weapons such as by pounding nosecones with hammers. But he would violate the space and perform the Eucharist in a prophetic witness against the preparations for mass destruction. Again it was often a handful of people with him, and their witness would often be ridiculed as tiny and fruitless in the face of the struggle of the superpower titans. But numbers never mattered to Father Bob, only faithfulness to the call of Christ.
Hanging around Father Bob forged those same values in me. More times than I can count I’ve had tiny numbers show up at events I’ve led. Peacemaking doesn’t usually draw crowds. Jesus taught, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13.31-32). Bob Branconnier showed me mustard seed theology in action.