Season 5, Episode 3
Daniel Bergner + Bob Bergner
Daniel Bergner, photo by Natalie Northup Bergner
When Bob Bergner told his parents that he was an artist, they said that he needed to speak to his psychiatrist.
“Anytime that you think you’re a musician, or a singer or dancer, it’s a sign of how sick you are,” Bob remembers his mother saying. “You should tell your doctor and have your lithium level adjusted.”
It was true that in his twenties Bob struggled – he had been homeless, and spent time in two psychiatric wards. Eventually he found his path as an artist and as a community leader, but not before some hard years.
Now, as well as a singer, a dancer, and a musician, Bob is also the pastor of a church in Hamden Connecticut, where he leads a breathtaking array of social justice efforts. There is the Dinner for a Dollar program, which deploys a mobile food truck as well as hosting on-site dinners at two local churches. Then there is the Swords to Plowshares program, which helps local municipalities organize gun buybacks, and then converts the weapons to garden tools and jewelry. When he’s not working on these programs or making art, Bob visits a local psychiatric unit and plays songs with residents there.
Bob Bergner, photo by Joanne Graziano
“The life he’s carved out is absolutely remarkable to me,” Daniel says. “It’s so full of true generosity, generosity that way exceeds mine, so full of reaching out to the very people who are going through things he went through.”
Though Bob expresses profound gratitude to have found the path to his current life, he recalls that there were steep costs incurred on the way, especially in his relationship with his father. In the episode, Bob shares a song that he wrote for his dad, recounting how he still feels hurt by how he was treated in those difficult years. Bob says that though his father later acknowledged that he had been wrong not to recognize his son’s talent, he never said it unprompted.
“It’s one thing to be asked about it and say that, but it would be another thing – over the years, recognizing the talent I did have – to say ‘Wow, that’s really good. We didn’t do the right thing,’” Bob says. “I could forgive him for not doing it, but I would always feel like, ‘Boy, that would have been the right thing to do, to make that gesture.”
When Daniel heard the song Bob wrote for their father, he was deeply moved.
“He played that song, and my son and I just sobbed. There’s so much pain and love there,” Daniel says. “We’re still partly the people our parents saw. My brother played us that song when we were in our late 50s, and it was all too easy to feel Bob’s heart at 23.”
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