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Rev. Myra Brown: Fighting for Social Justice

Rev. Brown played important role during Daniel Prude’s protests. She says she wants to be a ‘bridge’ to build ‘a better city and a better group of human beings’

By Christine Green

Rev. Myra Brown, pastor of Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, photographed by  Chuck Wainwright on Nov. 17 at her church.
Rev. Myra Brown, pastor of Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, photographed by Chuck Wainwright on Nov. 17 at her church.

“I had a dream, and in this dream I was standing on the altar, and there was kind of a sea of people out in front of me.”

Rev. Myra Brown had this dream when she was a lay minister at Rochester’s Corpus Christi Church in the late 1990s. What could it mean? She wasn’t sure, but it came again and this time she knew there was a message in it.

“I thought maybe this was just an affirmation of being at Corpus, that God was giving me this visual dream that, ‘I’ve called you to these people.’”

But in 1998 Rochester’s Catholic Diocese would drop a hammer on her ministry at Corpus Christi by firing her and the church’s leadership for allowing women to have a prominent role at the altar during mass, acknowledging marriage equality, and allowing all people to partake of communion.

“I thought, well, then that dream doesn’t make any sense. ‘That’s cruel God, why would you give me this dream of me on the altar with this sea of people, only to come in and fire us all?”

Little did she know that this wasn’t an end to her work as a minister — it was just the beginning.

“I got in this to be a healer”

Brown, 55, was first called to minister to the sick as a licensed practical nurse when she was 18 and took a job at the Rochester Psychiatric Center. While there, she organized patient groups to help them cope with their afflictions.

“These groups that I started running on my own were to give them back their social skills. What was happening was that they did get them back, but they also were getting back a sense of humanity that really they had lost.”

She enjoyed serving the patients, but she felt constricted by a lack of resources and support.

“It was more about housing people with psychiatric illness, than it was about helping them to heal from some of those things and transform behavior,” said Brown. “I just thought, that’s not the kind of nurse I want to be. I got in this to be a healer.”

Eventually she took a job at Unity Family Medicine at St. Mary’s as a nurse working with brain injury patients.

In the midst of her nursing work she got the call to bring healing to the faithful. She had been attending St. Bridget’s Catholic Church and sang in their choir since she was 16. It was a special, loving church that she felt proud to be a member.

She took her faith outside of the church building, too. “I loved any opportunity to preach or street witness with my friends or go to another church and be part of an altar call they were doing. I volunteered with the Billy Graham crusades, I went into schools with other churches to do ministry, and I just loved it.”

One day the parish priest asked her to preach at an upcoming service, but she resisted. It had been a hard year for Brown. Her grandmother, her children’s father, and her mother died between late 1990 and early 1991. She felt tired and didn’t think that she could take on the responsibility of preaching.

She prayed on it and didn’t feel any guidance in response and assumed that meant she shouldn’t preach. But later, when she was cleaning the house, she felt a literal pull on her shirt. She stopped in her tracks.

“I went upstairs to my room and I dropped to my knees and I said, ‘God are you calling me?’ And I heard an audible voice just like I’m talking to you, and the voice said, ‘Yes, I’m calling you to preach and teach my word.’”

In in 1992 she took a job as a lay minister at Corpus Christi Church in Rochester. They were looking to diversify their predominantly white staff.

At the Forefront of History

Rev. Brown at her Spiritus Christi Church. Photo by Christine Green
Rev. Brown at her Spiritus Christi Church. Photo by Christine Green

Her time at Corpus Christi was a happy one until the diocese fired several staff for the above-mentioned reasons. But being fired didn’t stop Brown, Rev. Mary Ramerman, Father James Callan and others from working together to form the Independent Catholic Church, Spiritus Christi in 1999.

Brown was still in nursing as well as doing ministerial work with Spiritus when she decided to return to college in 2014 for her bachelor’s degree in religion. She then entered Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School for her master’s in theology.

Not long after Brown started graduate school, Rev. Ramerman was ready to retire as the pastor of Spiritus, and the leadership team started a search for a new pastor.

“I just really felt called to be the next pastor. I just didn’t know how, I didn’t know when, I didn’t know where. You know it’s hard to know that when you’re a Roman Catholic woman. But I always knew that God could do anything in my life. God has always done the miraculous and has always sustained me.”

In 2017 Brown was ordained by Bishop Christine Mayr Lumetzberger of Austria. She was only the third African American woman ordained a priest in the Independent Catholic Church. In 2018 she was given the pastorship of Spiritus Christi Church.

For parishioners like Terri Pease seeing a woman at the altar was significant.

“It’s really important. There are lots of women in the world. It’s not a man’s world, it’s a ‘people’ world,” she said. “To see a woman on the altar, sees me, centers me. It makes me feel like I belong, like I am worthy, like we are worthy. And we are. So, for me, it’s really important.”

Father James Callan saw all that Brown has had to overcome to reach this point and admired her perseverance.

“She has had to battle sexism and racism in the church and in society. So that has been a constant struggle for her,” said Callan.

Brown’s longtime friend and Spiritus parishioner, Jonathan Leach, said: “[I] always knew she was destined for great things, but she was very humble about it. She didn’t boast and she didn’t brag about her position. She served. Whatever they asked her to do at the church, she was willing to do it.”

Kindness Matters

Brown is known for leading her congregation with kindness, empathy and a deep commitment to her faith.

“I would say that she is such an empathetic person that other people’s pain can make her cry. She has an incredibly, deeply feeling heart,” said parishioner Mary Heveron-Smith.

Heveron-Smith recalled when she made the difficult decision to admit her mother to a memory care unit. That Sunday at mass she couldn’t hold back the tears. Brown saw her and knew she needed support.

“She just looked at me before giving me communion, and she said, ‘You need a hug.’ And, of course, I did need a hug, and I fell apart. But she sensed that I needed something more. I needed physical assurance that she was there for me, that God was there for me. And so, it really was a very tender moment for me, and I felt affirmed that we had found our church.”

Father Callan choked up when he talked about Brown’s kindness and love for her community. He told 55 Plus about her dedication to helping those in need find housing and how she will drop everything to spend the night with someone in the hospital in order to provide comfort and support.

“She’s a very kind person, which comes through no matter what she’s dealing with. She can be confronting police or confronting really negative racial attitudes, but she always does it with love and kindness. And she does it in a strong way but in a loving way so that’s a really good quality I think when you’re dealing with controversial topics like dismantling racism.”

The Fight for Racial Justice

Photo by Christine Green
Photo by Christine Green

Brown has always been called to fight for racial justice and in the early 2000s she formed the group known today as Spiritus Anti-Racism Coalition (SPARC).

“I started doing [anti-racism] training for people here at church and really talking about structural and institutional racism and what we might do. And so that started our work. We looked at practices within our own church, spoke out about those. We looked at and we responded to racism that was happening in our community and we organized our anti-racism team around those things,” said Brown.

Heveron-Smith is a member of SPARC who said that the work they do is vital to creating a healthy community.

“It is the work of the moment; it is the work to look back with a really honest eye and honest lens and to right the injustices and to move forward as a community and see what we can do to make a better world.”

When George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis last March, SPARC joined the public call for justice. Then, in August, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren called a group of Black faith leaders together to discuss issues of racial injustices in the community. Brown wanted the mayor to understand that the current structure of policing in the United States was flawed.

“I said to her, ‘You know that this policing system was created in 1819. It was patterned after slave patrols, and most Black people were either slaves or indentured servants so there’s no way that the policing system in this country was ever designed to give public safety to people of color. It was designed to attend to white anxiety and to protect white wealth and property, and to monitor and to control Black and brown bodies because they are now free in America. But we’ve never reckoned with it. We’ve never even collectively acknowledged it, we just sort of put new language on it and call it public safety, but people of color have never been safe.’”

Mayor Warren assured her that Rochester didn’t suffer from the unjust policing plaguing the rest of the country.

Then the Daniel Prude footage was released in September, and it became clear that Rochester did indeed have a problem.

Protesters once again took to the streets. Brown was dismayed by how the police treated them.

“I saw the system of power at work on the streets and I was outraged. Because there was a lack of systemic humility, there was a lack of a systemic acknowledgement of harm done. And there was a lack of systematic effort to create healing and space for grief. There was this culture of punishment for even attempting to be upset by what happened to Daniel Prude.”

On the night of Sept. 5 things came to a head. SPARC partnered with other groups in Rochester to support protesters. Late that evening, after Brown had left the church, she got a call from the church’s operations manager, Davis Craig. He reported that police had trapped protesters on Fitzhugh Street, where Spiritus Christi Church is, without any exit. They shot rubber bullets and deployed tear gas. Craig encouraged protestors to come inside the church to find safety.

Brown immediately reached out to then Police Chief La’Ron Singletary. “This cannot happen. My church is a sanctuary space, it is sacred space they have no right to be shooting people outside of my church and attacking them,” said Brown.

“I said, ‘La’Ron I’m not playing with you.’ I said, ‘Listen, I need to make sure that all of our people there in that church can get out of that church and get out safely. Your officers need to stand down.’”

Eventually the protesters were able to leave the church safely. Parishioners like Pease were impressed that Brown took the steps to make sure the church was a safe space during the protests.

“One of the things I really liked was when Rev. Myra opened up the church as an actual sanctuary for people to be safe. I thought that was really something. It takes a lot of courage to do that.”

“I came and I preached the next morning. And it was all about this issue and social justice and racial justice and this policing system,” said Brown “And when I was done, I called the mayor, and I said, ‘You and I need to talk about what happened last night because that can never happen again.’”

The protests weren’t over though, and Brown had an idea for that evening’s event. The night before, Shirley and Jim Thompson had suggested that a small group of community elders come to the protest to serve as a buffer between police and protesters. It was too small a number though, so Brown suggested that they try again but with more people.

“For me the eldership model was a cultural model. The elders knew how to come alongside their community. Elders are not necessarily older people but people who have lived into some wisdom, and know how to hold people’s anger, how to hold their grief, how to affirm people who are traumatized, how to validate the harm that’s been done to people and how to challenge systems and be a buffer for our community. So that’s the model and the purpose of elders. And so [Mayor] Lovely knew that because she’s an African American woman, and I knew that, and so she agreed to let me try it “

About 100 elders answered the call and it was the most peaceful night since the beginning of the protests in reaction to the death of Daniel Prude.

Leach and his husband were very involved in the protests and he joined the elder line that night.

“We sang, and we prayed. It was just moving to see her leadership as far as getting the elders involved, as far as what the elders should know, the information that they needed, the things that could happen. And it was just amazing.”

As the month unfolded, protests continued and in mid-September protesters created a camp in front of city hall, just down the street from Spiritus. On Sept. 16, Brown left the church to find a heated scene outside. Officers were yelling at protesters, cars were getting towed, people were getting arrested.

“I walked up to the officer and I said, ‘I want to be arrested if you’re arresting these people because they don’t get out of the street and they won’t clear the area. I’m telling you that I’m not going to clear the area either. I’m not going to get out of the street either. So, if you’re going to arrest them, then you’re going to have to arrest me, too.”

The officers didn’t want to arrest Brown, and the volatile situation calmed because of her quick and selfless act.

Leach was moved to see Brown take a stand that day. “For me it was amazing to see a person of color, a Black woman, standing in front of the police like that.”

“That’s the role that I see myself in is to be that bridge, to risk something of myself, to risk something of my life, to make sure that I’ve done everything I can to get us to bend that arc of justice,” said Brown. “To bend it toward justice and to make sure that we become a better city and a better group of human beings. “

When Brown isn’t fighting for social justice or preaching at church, she enjoys spending time with her family and singing. When she stands back and looks at her life since she first had that dream, she knows it meant something very special.

“That dream was prophetic to this moment that I’m in. So, it wasn’t about Corpus. It was about Spiritus, and I just didn’t know it.”