By William Bole
July 27, 2015 — During the late 1990s, Yolanda Scott Brown was scaling the heights of the banking world — in more ways than one. She was senior vice president of Union Bank of California, occupying a corner office on the 14th floor of the bank’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Brown could look out the window on one side of her office and see the nine white letters of the iconic Hollywood sign, perched high in the mountains nine miles away. From the other side, she could see a large encampment of homeless people living in tents under a bridge just beyond the city’s Financial District. It was the second view that would subvert her plans in life.
“I’d look out the window and start reflecting on the disparity and the paradox,” recalled Brown, noting that the scene illustrated what Pope Francis now calls “an economy of exclusion.” She added, “It touched my heart and made me want to learn more about the exclusion, and how I could be a voice for those people.”
The banker decided to do the learning from a particular vantage point. She began years of graduate-level study in spirituality, theology and the Bible, with special attention to themes of justice and service. In 2005, she left behind finance to work full-time in the inner city as a pastoral associate at Dolores Mission Church, a Jesuit parish in East Los Angeles.
Today, Brown is extending her vocation at another Jesuit church, Blessed Sacrament, in Hollywood, California. There, she holds a position most people would not associate with a lay married woman, or man, for that matter. She leads the Catholic parish, working collaboratively with three Jesuit priests and some 16 others on staff.
Her official title is Parish Life Director. The parish is part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, but the Society of Jesus has administered the church for the past 101 years. Among its many ministries, Blessed Sacrament runs a K-8 Catholic school (dedicated, like all Jesuit schools, to nurturing “the whole student,” mind, body, and spirit). The parish also sponsors — close to Brown’s heart — The Center at Blessed Sacrament, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending homelessness in Hollywood. Brown oversees the whole parish operation.
Brown outside of Blessed Sacrament School, run by the parish. (Photo by Doris Yu)
“It’s not like a triangle, where I’m at the top,” she was quick to clarify. “It’s more like a circle, very concentric. We work closely as a team. We share responsibilities, although I’m ultimately the accountable individual.”
The leadership structure at Blessed Sacrament is part of a new ministry model spearheaded by the California Province of the Society of Jesus. The declining number of priestly vocations is one impetus behind the model, but Jesuit leaders are also responding to an upsurge of interest in lay professional ministry and to renewed theological perspectives on mission and collaboration.
“We’ve learned, all of us, over the last few decades, that the church is not simply the ordained, the hierarchy,” California Provincial Fr. Michael Weiler, SJ, told the province’s magazine, Mission, three years ago. “It’s everyone in the church, it’s all baptized people.”
As to Brown’s role in parish life, scarcely any of it could have been predicted as recently as 15 years ago.
At the time, she had no intention of leaving her job, other than to retire early, in five years. Brown and her husband were setting their sights on international travel, having sent the last of their seven children into the adult world.
It was not in any sense a cutthroat, high-stakes finance job. As senior vice president, Brown was responsible for a division that established bank branches throughout the state, which were intentionally developed in low- and moderate-income communities to offer affordable services and financial education to underserved clients. She was managing financial literacy programs and lending initiatives while working closely with the bank’s community economic development department. It was socially useful work.
But she explains, “There was a longing in my heart that more needed to be done, more than just moving people into the mainstream of banking. What were the conditions causing the poverty levels?”
Her corner-office view of homeless people under the bridge made it even harder for her to carry on with business as usual. “That’s when the Holy Spirit got me,” she points out.
Brown in her office at Blessed Sacrament Parish. (Photo by Doris Yu)
In 2000, Brown enrolled in a graduate Bible studies program at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit institution, while keeping her day job. She went well beyond Scripture and took courses in subjects ranging from social ethics to Ignatian spirituality, which seeks in many ways “to find God in all things,” as Jesuits say.
“I was falling in love with Jesus, and with the Jesuits,” says Brown, who was raised Catholic (by her U.S. Navy serviceman father and her Filipino-born mother) but had explored other faith traditions. Already holding an M.B.A., she wound up receiving a master’s in theology, and would later earn a Doctor of Ministry degree from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
She left banking around the same time she had planned to retire early, in 2005. But instead of flying off to global resorts with her husband, Brown began six years of full-time pastoral service at Dolores Mission Church. Then, at a Mass in July 2011, surrounded by a thousand parishioners of Blessed Sacrament along with friends, she was installed as Parish Life Director of that church.
Brown was blessed by Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark at her installation Mass at Blessed Sacrament Parish in 2011.
It is a lively, diverse parish, with 1,900 families — Latinos, Anglos, Filipinos and others. Brown says the Ignatian spirituality that she embraced at Loyola Marymount also permeates the parish and its ministries. At the kindergarten-through-ninth-grade school, for example, students begin the day by taking part in a simplified form of the Examen, a Jesuit spiritual exercise. In its usual form, this prayer involves recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way.
There is no pastor of the parish, even though there are three Jesuits on staff — Fathers Kevin Ballard, Leo Prengaman and Eddie Samaniego — each serving as “Priest Minister.” Weekly meetings of the 10-member pastoral planning team begin with silence. Team members share, Examen-style, what they have been experiencing in recent days and “how God is speaking to us,” Brown relates. They typically end with a prayer of thanksgiving for what the Holy Spirit is enabling them to do in service to God’s people.
Asked in an interview if she is essentially the chief executive of Blessed Sacrament, the former bank V.P. replied: “That’s too corporate. When the Holy Spirit is in charge, you know it’s a vocation.” After 15 years of unforeseen change in her life, and in the life of Jesuit ministries, Brown cheerfully sweeps aside another question about what the future may have in store.
“I don’t think I could wrap my head around that,” she says. “Who knows what the Holy Spirit is planning for us?”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.