A Man for All Reasons: Bruce Hilton, 1930-2008

March 20, 2008

Sometimes in your life you meet someone who seems rather unimposing, but on further investigation you find layers of value which transcend all definitions. Such a man has been Bruce Hilton – minister, author, columnist, medical ethicist, social justice activist, tuba player, father of four and husband of the late Rev. Virginia Hilton, a giant in the same fields in her own right.


I say “has been” and not “was” because I cannot let go of the memories, the education, the good times we had together as friends. The reality is that Bruce followed his beloved Ginny to that better place reserved for ethical giants – within five months – at 1:25 on the morning of March 14, 2008. The family had placed him in a hospice some two weeks before and he and they were prepared for this outcome. The diabetes, which had tortured him with pain and enveloping blindness in recent years, was no longer a factor.


If you want a biographical sketch of a life well and actively lived I would send you to Google where you can see the leaps of faith that Bruce and Ginny (shown at left) traveled together. The only fact that we actually shared was our birth year, 1930. I was no match for their passion for justice or capability. 


Bruce came into my life in 1982, the year his wife was assigned to the Albany Community United Methodist Church in Albany, California. It was a stressful beginning because Ginny was the first woman to come to this little church as pastor, but she took on the task with energy and smiles, supported by Bruce in his role as pastor’s husband.


Little by little we learned of the history of this “dynamic duo.” The Civil Rights era had taken the young marrieds, with four children, to work the fields in the Delta Ministry, fighting the Ku Klux Klan and the ongoing prejudice in the Deep South. Accused of being Communists, evicted from their first home, having windows shot out were just the beginnings of a story which Bruce turned into a book in 1969, The Delta Ministry, an insider’s view of “the most creative and controversial church-supported civil rights group in the South.”


While at Albany, Bruce and I started a men’s morning breakfast group, which met weekly to talk about the cares and woes of the world. Each session brought new appreciation for the length and depth of his and Ginny’s involvement in worthy causes.


In the early days, Bruce was the minister while Ginny was the professional nurse. Bruce’s abilities in writing took him into newspaper work while in college and beyond, and supported Ginny’s new sights on a ministerial career of her own. The field of medical ethics or bio-ethics was developing and Bruce transferred his interests into more writing, with bioethics as his passion, founding The National Center for Bioethics in New Jersey, and later settling in California.


A syndicated column by Bruce with a bio-ethics theme was read around the United States, later evolving into a book in 1991, First Do No Harm, Wrestling with New Medicine’s Life and Death Dilemmas. I usually got an email from Bruce with his latest effort, but they became fewer and fewer as each year went on and he endured laser treatments for blood leaks in his eyes as a result of the diabetes raging on.


Ginny became his eyes for driving, which helped him maintain his other passion, playing the tuba. In the church that Ginny had served prior to Albany, in El Sobrante, California, they had started a musical group, The Joyful Noise Jazz Band, in which Bruce played the tuba and son Paul played lead trumpet. Their slogan, “We play no song before its time” (or something like that) carried their Dixieland style to Annual Conference, other churches, dance halls, and really just anywhere someone would invite them.


But it was another factor in their life together that brought out the most far-reaching of their combined talents. A son had realized he was gay. Bruce and Ginny took this as a challenge from God and decided to investigate every aspect. They read and digested every piece of information they could about the subject and resolved to educate the rest of the world about this part of human nature.


It was here that they as a team became a part of my personal enlightenment, and it is something for which I have been forever grateful. To expand our definition of humanity, love and compassion made me ashamed of comments in my past, along with providing me with an appreciation of God’s wider universe. Their work with writings and support of advocacy groups, such as P’FLAG, will live on far into the future.


It has been a privilege to know you, Bruce and Virginia Hilton. You have left quite a legacy. Perhaps the most important is Bruce’s book, Can Homophobia Be Cured? Wrestling With Questions That Challenge The Church. It’s available on Amazon.com.


Clay Berling

Carmel, California


(The Rev. Bruce Hilton is shown above speaking at the 2007 Annual Conference Session. Photos by Spud Hilton)  


Editor's Note: There will be a memorial celebration April 5 in Sacramento. For details download San Francisco Chronicle obituary.