The Rev. Sr. Brooke Bushong, the last of my great Church Army mentors from the ’70s, died last month in New York. She was 68.
It’s hard to organize my thoughts to write about her. How do I tell you what made her great? If you knew her you already know, and if you don’t, how can I get you to read this? Why should you care?
This calls for a letter to God, so here goes.
I heard from Patti a couple of days ago that Brooke died last month of a collapsed lung, secondary to COPD. I knew she was doing poorly, and I tried to pray for her and Patti every day, but sometimes I forgot. Still, you know Brooke meant a lot to me; she was there for one of the most formative periods of my life, Church Army training at General Seminary, 1974.
All of my mentors are gone now, Lord; Ervin, Howard and Brooke. I kinda feel like an orphan again.
But I mostly want to thank you that I got to know her and learn from her every day for those nine months that made me an evangelist. That’s what they all were, and I wanted to be one of them. Eventually, I was one of them, because their training was so good.
They were all very clear that “training” was what we were about; education and training are two different things. There was a lot of education involved, but training is “doing” more than “thinking.” That was the main difference between us and the seminarians. They were supposed to think (and thinking is good), but Brookie showed us how to perceive you. That is a priceless distinction.
A police officer gets trained in how to use his or her body in a particular way to perform a certain function. Of course they also get educated, but when it’s time to take physical control of an offender, the training is what matters. Once the officer gains control, then some talking and thinking can happen.
We were trained: how to conduct the Daily Office; how to preach and teach the Gospel; how to talk to people and especially how to listen to them; how to detect a “stained-glass voice” in each other. How to convene a meeting and draw people out so they felt involved and empowered; how groups work and how they don’t. Brooke was an expert in all this: learning by doing.
“You are the leader now. What’s your purpose? What procedure will enable you to achieve your purpose? How will you know if you have or have not achieved your goal? How do you build in feedback from participants to help you measure what works and what doesn’t? As a group member, how do you give feedback so the leader can measure? Go ahead, try it, we’ll support you.”
She was awfully good at this, Lord. And she had a great partner in Howard Galley. He was a showman, a dazzler, a brilliant man; in those days she was a little quieter, a little more grounded, the mom or big sis we turned to when we really needed help.
She was good at that too. We needed both of them.
They were Gay, Lord, two of the finest teachers I ever had. Incredible role models, both of them; the exact examples I needed of committed, deeply faithful lovers and justice workers. One male, one female, the “perfect couple” who had zero romantic interest in each other; good friends who saw themselves reflected in each other’s eyes.
If all Brooke ever did was to enable Howard Galley to give his gifts to the Church and the world, that would be enough. But she stood easily on her own, with gifts he didn’t have. She was a leader in her own right, and she didn’t need validation from him. He eagerly gave it to her, knowing she was a leader and his equal.
Howard was the most brilliant man I ever met, but he was so busy talking most of the time that he sometimes couldn’t listen; it was Brooke who opened his ears.
He loved young people and valued them (I was 22 that year), but Brooke had an empathy for youth that few adults can match. It’s no surprise that her prayer For Young Persons made it into the ’79 Book of Common Prayer, for which he was general editor:
God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (BCP p. 829)
Her prayer still feels new, 30 years later. Following Jesus really is “better than chasing after selfish goals.” She draws a distinction, seldom elsewhere expressed in the Prayer Book, between pop culture and The Way. She enables kids to follow The Way.
That to me is a woman’s prophetic voice.
Brooke Bushong was steady in this wobbly and confusing world. Her faith was stronger than anyone else I know. She was certain about you, God—not that she didn’t have questions sometimes, or stray thoughts or heartaches, much less that others also have questions and doubts, anger and needs and complete misunderstandings.
But you so touched her, so young, that she was convinced that everything they say about you is true. She was a very smart person, given to skepticism and even cynicism about human beings; but of you she had no doubt.
She believed in your miracles, all the supernatural stories of grace and love that the skeptics find preposterous. She knew all the accretions and add-ons, all the superstitious panderings, all the fundamentalist literalisms that oppress and exploit people; but she knew for a fact you could feed 5000.
Thank you, God, for all your gifts to my friend! And all her gifts to me.
We were always “in group” that year, Lord, morning, noon and night. You know how hard we worked, the long hours. Being “in group” was the whole point. Now we might say “in community,” but everything we did as a training center was a joint venture, a common prayer. We had so much ground to cover, and so little time to do it in (a three-year theological education in one year, minus the Hebrew and Greek), that we had to keep moving. But of course we got snagged at times—someone with hurt feelings, someone with a different theological interpretation—and Brooke always knew when it happened and moved us to heal the breach. She trusted her gut, and I figure you were a big part of that. She knew you loved her, and therefore she could trust herself to know what was going on. Once our needs were identified, we all could start to minister.
Brooke was the heart of the whole operation.
Others contributed too, Fr. Bill Coulter and Tom Tull, CA, plus occasional guest speakers; Tom was such a clueless ditz that year, Lord, but we loved him anyway, and admired his service in Alaska with the Inuits. He was evangelical and couldn’t accept that he was Gay, but years later he did, becoming one of the principal AIDS-fighters in your Church, a hero if ever there was one. Brooke and Howard helped give him courage, and though it took a few years, he came out spectacularly for the health of your human family. Thank you, God, for Tom Tull, handsome and clueless and committed in ways we couldn’t imagine. (I will never, ever, ever set foot in the Arctic Circle.) Here was a hero of the Eskimos, and I will forever honor him for that, as his AIDS work is remembered to this day. Thank you, Thomas, always. I’m sorry the evangelical ideology held you back so long, but then you pushed beyond it like a man.
Fr. Bill was bombastic and loud, a true organizational development consultant, and I still remember one bit of advice he gave: “If you haven’t used it in six months throw it out!” I did that the other day, Lord, because he said so. When I die I don’t want someone coming in here and saying, “Good grief, what did he keep this for?”
“Christmas stuff too!” Bill shouted. We all giggled, because we knew we weren’t throwing away our Christmas decorations. But he got the point across. We loved him dearly.
Always, there was Brooke at the end of the table, surveying the proceedings, ready to step in if needed, quiet if she wasn’t. A pillar of wisdom; also the first Lesbian I ever got close to.
I remember when the Philadelphia 11 got ordained that summer, Lord; the entire faculty knew this was going to be Big Stuff, so they all were there for our discussion. We had a lot of questions, but by the end of the night we were all on board with women’s ordination. We had read Amos and Hosea and Isaiah, and we knew a justice issue when we saw one. Besides, we had an example right in that room of a woman pastor, Sr. Brooke.
I am glad, all these years later, that when she sought ordination in response to your call, it was only to the diaconate, not the priesthood. Being a deacon fit her; she was a servant type all her life. And we were being trained for lay ministry, not ordination, so if she had sought the priesthood (though very qualified), I’d have felt a bit betrayed. I’m sure it would have been okay but I liked her-and-your definition of her as a deacon. She belonged at your altar, God, if anyone does; and she so wanted to be there her whole life long, just helping out.
I think the thing I’m most thankful for in Brooke is her example of unshakable catholic faith. I have it myself now, and maybe always did, but it flies in the face of the current culture, even in the Church; we all need to know one rock-solid believer, one person of integrity, and she was it for me. Erv and Howard were right there with her, but hers was the faith that comes from direct knowledge, from personal experience, from relationship with you.
Of course she believed; how could she not, when she knew you first hand as a caller and lover?
Thank you for that, Most Holy One! Thank you for loving her a million times better than I could.
And thank you most profoundly for finally sending Patti to her, a woman fully worthy of Brooke Bushong.
(I take off my glasses now, God, ’cause I gotta wipe my eyes.)
What Patti has been to Brooke is more than anyone could have hoped for. Oh, now the sniffles start too.
They were together 23 years, Lord, but I met Brooke 35 years ago, so I know a few things Patti doesn’t and can’t; what Brooke was like before they met. Patti got to see the incredible sunflower Brooke became, tall and bright with seeds that are good for eating; but I knew Brooke as a relative girl, and single at that.
She didn’t talk much about her private life, but I think we all understood that she was a holdout. I’m quoting Jackson Browne with that term; he would know what I mean.
I’m pretty sure Brooke did some dating when she got a chance, and probably dabbled a little here and there in the romance department; it was the ’70s and she was a healthy woman coming into her own at the very moment that women all over the world were doing the same. Thank God!
But she was a holdout, and didn’t get involved in all the Lesbian psychodrama of the day. She was looking, but in that era she wasn’t finding much. She gave the impression of having a pretty clear vision of what and who she wanted, and not settling for less.
Am I right in my memory, Lord, that she came from a good family with deep roots? That they were halfway appalled at what she chose to do with her life, by following you and hanging around with a bunch of unwashed homeless kids and Lesbo’s and Church Army trainees? She could have lived in much more “comfort,” but it wasn’t for her. She didn’t want comfort, she wanted a little excitement, a chance to contribute to the building up of your kingdom, the amelioration of suffering and the oncoming of liberation—and that meant that any woman who was going to be with her had to want most of the same things.
She met a lot of very fine women, God—you’re really good at this creation business!—but for years on end she didn’t meet the soul who mirrored you in the way she needed.
And then one day, hello Patti…
Twenty-three years, O God, of selfless devotion, of laughs and hugs, of minor annoyances and major problems; but these two made a marriage in your Name, and I am so grateful you blessed my loved one with love.
Please watch over Patti for the rest of her life; let Brooke’s memory continue to guide her, except when the uniqueness of Patti, whom you also love, has to and ought to take over.
Let her come into her own now in her aloneness and her grief, as she came into herself in relationship with the sainted one you gave her. Bring her nearer, Lord, closer and closer, until that happy day when you open up heaven in her honor, with music and dancing and food and the sight of her beloved again, running effortlessly towards her, arms outstretched.
Lord, the thing I pray most for is their reunion; because they found in each other’s bodies, minds and souls a mortal depiction of you.
Bless Patti forever; thank you for Brooke forever; and someday O Lord, let me see them together, laughing and having fun as we worship the One You Sent to teach us how to live and love.
Thank you, God, for Brooke and Patti.
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