At age 28, Brice Ullman still looks like a fresh-faced blond Midwestern farm boy.
But as a National Guard military chaplain, he ministered to soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder. At Erlanger hospital, he counseled patients in dire condition.
And his formal education includes a wide spectrum of political, religious and social thought. He has a philosophy degree from the deeply conservative Liberty University -- founded by GOP icon the late Rev. Jerry Falwell -- as well as post-graduate studies at Georgetown University, a school that's world famous as a bastion of liberal intellectual thought.
Ullman now brings that colorful quilt of life experience -- along with his wife and baby girl -- to his new job as rector at the Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Chattanooga. And, only a few months after Ullman was hired by the church, it's already making big changes, moving into a new home after 10 years of renting the Richmont University church sanctuary on McCallie Avenue.
As a member of Redeemer, Ullman helped hunt for a new church building in the winter of 2012, and now Redeemer has bought the former Trinity Presbyterian Church in Brainerd for $270,000, according to Hamilton County records. The congregation is busy this month beautifying the building with some construction projects, and worship services are scheduled in September.
Redeemer communications director Richard Gruetzemacher says that, because the former church location was considered temporary, it limited the amount of outreach the congregation could do.
"When we were renting a church, the owners needed the building during the week, so we weren't as available to our neighborhood as we would have liked to be," he says. "Now that we are moving into a church building of our own, we want to offer a wide array of ministries and community outreach. We are moving into a vibrant, diverse neighborhood, and we want to be great neighbors."
In conversation, Ullman is energized and thoughtful, sometimes to the point of overexplaining in an effort to cover all the bases and make sure he's being clearly understood. But he also has a quick sense of humor and is able to laugh at himself, especially when he's told that he's overexplaining.
Although Ullman is much younger than many of his approximately 85 congregants, his education thoroughly grounded him in Anglican tradition and conservative interpretation of the Scripture. But he describes his choice of famously conservative Liberty as his undergraduate school as simply the best choice for an inexperienced teenager who had never lived in the big city. Tales of booze, bad grades and blurry nights that end with underpants dancing convinced him he might not be ready for a big, impersonal school.
"Really, the main reason that I chose Liberty University is that I was a little nervous about all the stories about freshmen life I'd hear from kids who grew up in small Ohio towns like mine," Ullman says. "I didn't want to lose my sense of myself as a person or be overwhelmed by the atmosphere of a big party school. My parents are very conservative politically and socially so they were happy to see me choose Liberty.
"But something I learned from observation is that too many people enclose themselves inside a bubble and only let people who share their beliefs and opinions into the bubble with them. It seems to me that you don't learn enough about the world and human beings inside a bubble. I wanted to expand my horizons and test my ideas and hear how different people thought."
The Redeemer's first congregation was formed by Episcopalians who split from their denomination when America's Episcopal Church allowed the first gay bishop to be appointed in 2003. The appointment and the bishop's marriage to his longtime male partner prompted many Episcopalian churches to split apart because they believed the mother church was giving a liberal interpretation to Scripture by sanctioning gay marriage and gay priests. (The controversy erupted again this year when the bishop announced he and his partner were divorcing).
Redeemer member Gladys Edwards, who is also a church officer, recalls the conservative Chattanooga Episcopalians who left their former church continued to meet at Town and Country restaurant to discuss the Bible and support each other through prayer. They decided to form an Anglican Church and rent a church building until they found the right neighborhood for a permanent home.
"We have Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Church of God members in our congregation, but Anglican and Episcopalian liturgy and worship are so similar, it meant a lot to us to preserve that in our new home," she says. "We always wanted to be a permanent church and have a pastor who could unite people as a healer and a teacher."
Ullman came to Chattanooga in 2012 when Erlanger offered him a job as its hospital chaplain. Once here, he and his wife became members at Redeemer. When the minister retired, the congregation knew about Ullman's training at Trinity School of Ministry in Pittsburgh, Pa. -- a seminary steeped in Anglican tradition -- and asked him to help fill in as rector while they looked for a permanent replacement. Before a few months went by, however, the congregation knew they wanted Ullman as their permanent priest, Edwards says.
"I don't really want to relive the reasons we split from the Episcopalians; gay marriage is an important issue for many Americans, but it isn't the only issue we want to define us," Edwards says, sighing as she searches for the right words. "We want a leader who can help us do good works in this community, to fill more than spiritual needs.
"Brice is young, but he is that sort of leader. He brings people together," she says. "He has the energy and intelligence and spirit to help us do work that will make a difference to our community. He can also help us reach out to younger people and bring them into the congregation."
Ullman credits his Georgetown University experience for shaping him into the sort of leader the Redeemer congregants would want. He felt a whole new universe opening while at Georgetown, where he was exhilarated by discussions of social issues with people from all over the world whose views often contradicted his. Sometimes they convinced him he was wrong; sometimes they didn't.
"But we were always respectful of each other's dignity as human beings," he says. "Georgetown showed me that there is no reason for people to resort to mudslinging and vitriol when they disagree. It really discourages me now when I hear people who disagree on an issue attack each other as being evil because that isn't what I believe God would want us to do, and it isn't a way to learn more about the world around us and how to change it for the better.
"One of the most important things I discovered at Georgetown is that sometimes people who are different from me politically are wonderful people who seek the same moral good that I do on social issues."
Even before moving into its new location, the Redeemer's hardworking congregation was supporting impressive outreach efforts. The church pays for the education of six orphan children -- two in Rwanda, four in Uganda -- loaded 690 backpacks with school supplies that were donated to low-income Chattanooga students, runs a community food pantry for the needy, collected shoes and socks for dozens of orphaned children, filled care packages full of goodies and useful items for children and outfitted impoverished adults with clothing. The church also hosts Brownie Days for teachers at low-income schools who welcome a surprise sweet treat.
Ullman now wants to launch a Spanish language outreach program to draw in the neighborhood's growing Latino community. He also wants to create a recreation center in the church for children of low-income working parents who cannot afford child care services. And he would like to offer meeting room space to groups such as Narcotics Anonymous.
He knows the gay marriage controversy that divided Episcopalians is now surfacing in the Anglican church in England where a second Anglican vicar has married his male partner and vowed a legal battle to keep a recent job offer the church extended. Ullman says his own Chattanooga congregation interprets the Bible to say that marriage is between a man and a woman. But then he quickly adds:
"The important thing for me is, we will welcome anyone who comes to our doors in the spirit of Christian love."
Contact Lynda Edwards at email@example.com or 423-757-6391.
Lynda Edwards has covered just about every beat there is while working for The Associated Press, PBS as a Frontline and Nightly Business Report associate producer, Gannett in the heart of Louisiana Cajun country as well as newspapers in Miami, Tucson AZ, Colorado and Arkansas. She has freelanced for The New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, Vogue, Rolling Stone and The Washington Monthly. While at the ABA Journal, she won a Fourth Estate Award, Lisagor ...