“We’re not just intellectual eggheads anymore.”
The 16th Bishop Suffragen of the Diocese of Los Angeles Diane Bruce picks Indian buffet
and talks about technology and having fun
by Hanna Kang Brown
It’s easy to get a hold of the Rt. Rev. Diane Bruce, the 16th Bishop Suffragen-Elect to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the first female bishop in the diocese’s history. She responds to my email request within the hour writing “call me to set up a time.” Later in the evening, I realize the hour is late so I text her. The next morning, she texts me back asking, “Who is this?” I had forgotten to include my name on the text. I call her and once she knows who I am, she presents me with three options for lunch that include Indian and Mediterranean food. I pick the first one, the one Bishop Bruce keeps warning me is “pretty funky.”
It’s called Laxmi Sweets & Spices in Tustin, CA and the first thing I notice when I look it up on Yelp.com is a customer photo of the front of the store. Laxmi is an Indian convenience store/video store with an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet and neon signs up front that say things like “video conversion” and “phone cards” as well as a big poster with the words, “income tax preparation.”
I arrive at Laxmi Sweets & Spices at 12:31pm and as I walk through the strip mall parking lot, Bishop Bruce comes out the front door and greets me with her characteristic smile, the one that looks like she’s slightly embarrassed but glad to see you. She has short gray hair and a petite frame and greets me with a hug.
“Come in. Are you hungry?” she says.
We walk into Laxmi and I can see what the Yelp reviewers meant by the cafeteria-like style of the place. In the back of the store, behind several aisles of spices and grains and frozen food freezers, are tables and booths set up on linoleum with water coolers and Styrofoam cups on either side of the aisles. The cash register near the front is next to a buffet, which Bishop Bruce immediately interrogates with the pointed directness one could expect from a former banker from New Jersey.
“We’re going to have the buffet. Tell us what you have,” she says, pointing at the steel bins of sauces and entrees. The Indian woman working behind the counter describes the different items: samosas, palak paneer, chicken tikka, lamb curry. “What’s this?” she says, to crispy fried vegetables that the woman failed to explain. I’m starting to wonder if she’s doing this for my benefit since she seems to know what the dishes are.
“Oh, this looks good,” says Bishop Bruce and we start loading up our plates with our food. “Have you eaten Indian food before?” she asks me, and I assure her that I have.
We sit down to eat and within the first bites of food, Bishop Bruce is ready for the interview. I’ve collected a list of questions from the Episcorific editorial board and as I run through them between bites of chicken korma and garlic naan, it’s clear she’s answered
these kinds of questions many times before. When I ask what she thinks the Episcopal Church’s greatest gifts to this generation of young adults is, she responds immediately with “The Episcopal Church’s greatest gift to young adults is inviting them to ask the deep questions in a safe place.”
Her words sound like well-rehearsed sound bites at first, especially when it comes to ministry in the Episcopal Church, but there is an undeniable energy to Bishop Bruce that sets her apart. It’s as if she shooting the answers right back at you as fast as she can and it’s not just the Jersey inflection. I’ve heard it attributed to her time as an executive banker at Wells Fargo before she became a priest but I get the sense that there’s more to it than that. Bishop Bruce is energetic and quick, and it’s as if she’s actually having fun being a bishop. A religious leader having fun? Sounds like an oxymoron but Bishop Bruce seems to be proving the old tropes wrong.
Bishop Bruce oversees the 45 parishes in the southern third of the diocese and since being elected in May, she has“hit all 45 in the first 100 days.” “I’m a freeway flyer,” she says, referring to the hours and miles she put in on the freeway. To pass the time and fulfill her love of books, she listens to books on cd and at any given time will be listening to “one nonfiction book, one mystery, and one trashy romance novel.” “No comedies,” she says, “because I’ll miss my exit.”
I ask her what the largest areas of growth for the diocese and church are, and she immediately responds with, “The largest areas of growth are multicultural ministries.” She directs the multicultural ministries and stewardship for the diocese and her roots as a linguistics major at UC Berkeley help explain the breadth of her ability to minister in different languages. She’s done Spanish services for 12 years and recently did a full service in Mandarin. She says she’s working on her Cantonese. Next year, she will be going to Korea for the convocation of Korean clergy in the Anglican Communion and in 2012, she will be going to China to support the Chinese clergy in the diocese.
Bishop Bruce says she is concerned with overworked ethnic ministers and creates 24 hour retreats for clergy that are essentially scheduled non-work days. She is also a big proponent of extending hospitality to her home. It’s common for her to have someone over at 3 pm for tea, then 4 pm for wine, then wine and dinner at 5 pm. She stacks her appointments to give as much face time as possible and when I ask where this value comes from, she says, “My mother.” Bishop Bruce’s mother was Roman Catholic and she herself was a devout Catholic before joining the Episcopal Church as a young adult. “My mother practiced
radical hospitality. Growing up, we always had wonderful conversation around the table with neighbors and friends. We always had food and drink.”
Her value for radical hospitality seems to extend to the internet. Bishop Bruce designed the website at her former parish and blogs at http://www.obispadjb.blogspot.com. I ask about the role of technology in the future of the church, and her eyes light up. “I love technology. It’s essential that churches and leaders are on Facebook.
We have to Tweet, Facebook. We have to be active on social media. Online is where people are finding each other. More people are online via Facebook and texting than email.” At the time I write, her Facebook friend count is at 1,084. Bishop Bruce is also active on Farmville, a farm simulation
game application on Facebook.
I note her enthusiasm for online media and ask, “Would you be willing to do a service on Second Life?” Second Life is a 3D virtual world where users can create an avatar and build a virtual world for themselves, including religious practices and community.
“Sure.” she says, although she adds that the only issue she would have with doing a service in Second Life is that being physically present is very important, and Episcopalians bring people around the altar. Being physically present in a virtual world would be a major barrier.
The owner of Laxmi stops by our table to check on us and it turns out that she’s been coming to Laxmi for years. In fact, she brought her son when he was a teenager and it is what got him interested in Southeast Asian studies which he is currently studying. After we get seconds at the buffet, a samosa for her, more mint chutney for me, she tells me about her latest favorite gadget, the iPad which she confesses she is addicted to. It fits in her purse and the Notepad app is perfect for taking notes in meetings with clergy. She then takes out her Blackberry and shows me how she makes her own appointments. Bishop Bruce gets her ringtones off http://www.crackberry.com and gets a kick out of assigning personal ringtones to close family and friends.
She tells me about her other favorite pastime: Scrabble. A former parishioner introduced her to the game and she’s been a devotee ever since. “The key is in the two letter words,” she tells me. She plays Facebook Scrabble on her Blackberry whenever she has down time. She even plays Facebook Scrabble when she’s playing Scrabble in real time with her husband and is waiting for her turn. Her highest score for one word? 95 points.
Her level of energy and enthusiasm is astonishing, even more so when she reminds me of her recent battle with breast cancer, which she won and is now cancer-free. I point out that her warmth, affection, and playfulness doesn’t seem to fit the dry and witty stereotype of Episcopalians. She leans in and says, “We’re not just intellectual eggheads anymore. We’re dry and witty but there’s a good bunch of us coming up that are meeting the needs of the world and having fun doing it.” I tell her it’s very clear she’s a bishop, having fun. She says, “Hanna, you have to have a sense of humor. You just have to.”
On our way out, Bishop Bruce tells the owner that she’ll be back with her son when he’s home on winter break. And with a parting hug, she points out her license plate. It says “OBISPA,” Spanish for bishop except she’s broken the rules and made it feminine (the female form of “bishop” does not exist in the Spanish language). She grins and waves goodbye.
Head Chaplain: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (because he always wears khakis)
Husband: Frank Zappa guitar solo
Older sister: “Bad to the Bone”
Daughter: theme song from Peanuts
Son: “Masters of the Universe”
Her boss: “Soul Man”
Unknown: “Somebody’s Calling Me”
Bishop Bruce’s Book Picks:
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Hanna Kang-Brown is a contributing writer and Episcorific editor based in greater Los Angeles.
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