A ministry of presence

November 30, 1997

Whoever coined the phrase "extended family" never imagined one as large as Patti Browning's. It's as large as the world, as big as the Body of Christ.
In 12 years as wife of the presiding bishop and 15 years earlier living overseas, Browning has met members of that body from Cairo to Cuba, Okinawa to Oregon. She likes the thought of Christ being within each person. When she meets someone, she says, she tries to focus on the Christ in herself to reach out to the Christ in the other.
It doesn't matter if they come from vastly different backgrounds. When she visits Third World shanty towns, she says, "I feel as Christians, as one in Christ, you can sit and pray and talk and share with these people and learn from them."
The problems in such places can be overwhelming. "You want to try to make a difference," she says. Sometimes she feels helpless.
"If you can't change systems," she concludes, "at least you can become friends."
Browning's interest in the Palestinian issue and her trips there have become renowned throughout the church.
She summarizes her own ministry partly as a ministry of presence. "It's kind of hard to analyze your own impact," she says. "As you talk with people, sometimes you're able to see yourself better. It's not only my own presence, but theirs to me."
The well-traveled wife of the 24th presiding bishop grew up a Presbyterian in the small Texas town of Taft. Her mother, Lyra Haisley Sparks, came from a Quaker family. The family attended a Presbyterian church after moving to Texas, which had no Quaker churches, she explains.
A writer, Sparks reflected her Quaker beliefs in her poetry. In terms of her own ministry, Browning says she believes she learned those concepts of peace, justice, love and healing from her mother. "I think Quakers hold very strongly to their heritage. She was very active in the community. As a child, I think I picked up a lot of that."
The Brownings met on a blind date. She was studying fine arts at Stephens College, Missouri; he was at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.
"He says it was love at first sight," she recounts. "My problem was, my mother liked him too much."
Browning eventually overcame any rebellious reservations. They married three years later, in September 1953.
Browning also switched denominations. Former Presiding Bishop Arthur Lichtenberger confirmed her while she was at Stephens.
From the beginning, life as a clergy spouse provided a cross-cultural education. Edmond Browning served on the Mexican border; then in Okinawa, where he was consecrated bishop; then two years in Europe. After two years on former Presiding Bishop John Allin's staff in New York, he became bishop of culturally diverse Hawaii before being elected presiding bishop in 1985.
Since then, she has traveled around the world. Her trips to Nicaragua earned her the nickname "Commie Mommy" from her oldest son. In Jerusalem, St. George's College's library is named after the Brownings.
The two youngest of their five children were born in Okinawa.
"The one thing I think that our children hopefully gleaned from a lot of this ... is a sense of being a global citizen, appreciating your country but yet at the same time realizing that we're not that narrow," she says.
There were adjustments. Browning says she'll never forget the night, after her husband joined Allin's staff, when her son Peter complained about a junior high school bully.
"Peter," said her blond, 7-year-old son John, "you know why they don't like us?"
"No, why?"
"It's because we're Japanese."
The Brownings' youngest had never been in the United States before. When she told him he was American, "he was stunned," she says. "I was astonished because it never occurred to me that he would not make that transition."

Grandchildren, college

Family references fill Browning's conversation. She remembers discovering the boys eating dragonflies in Japan and how they distressed fellow travelers by holding elevator races in Stockholm.
She eagerly anticipates living in Oregon near their only daughter and her family. And Browning looks forward to getting to know her 12 grandchildren better. All were born during the presiding bishop's term.
She also is considering returning to college. Already, she's signed up for an August "What Color is my Parachute?" seminar.
Unlike the stereotypical retiree, she appreciates the chance not to travel so much.
"It kind of wears on you after a while," she admits, "although it's been wonderful to have had the experience of seeing so many wonderful people in this church."
"What impact I've had, I don't know," she says. "I don't feel myself as a powerful person. Sometimes I feel very powerless. ... Maybe, hopefully, I will have sown seeds. That's my one hope. Whatever will happen is in God's hands."
She doesn't consider herself prominent, the first lady of the church. Being referred to that way "always has been a little startling," she says. "I don't see myself as a terribly up-front person. I think my ministry has been more on a quiet way ... I think of myself as being me."
Still, she considers it important to share her experiences to benefit others. On her mirror, she keeps the message: "All that is not given is lost."
She thinks her successor, Phoebe Griswold, will do well.
"I think she's going to be wonderful. She will bring tremendous gifts," she says. "She's a very bright, articulate, caring person. All of this is rooted in a deep spirituality. I think that she will be a blessing to many people in the church. ... I know that the church will bless her as well." |

Sharon Sheridan of Flanders, N.J., is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Episcopal Life.

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