Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa is one of the oldest establishments in the area we know as Downtown SLO, second only to our Chumash population and natural environment. I would be remiss to not have taken a chance to sit down with Father Russell Brown as a part of my interview series this year. Father Russ is known to many of our community members in many capacities and I wanted to take a chance to study his perspective on our community, the perspective of a pastor in the middle of an urban center. I was amazed to learn of his story and how he came to be the current leader of our Mission.
Father Russ had a lifetime of career experience before he became ordained. When I reached out to him to explore a potential interview I was surprised when he responded that his first degree had been in journalism at Santa Clara University and worked as a journalist. In case you don’t know Father Russ I will clarify that one of the first things I learned about him is that he is a seeker of truth and he has let that guide his life. He initially studied journalism in that pursuit of truth; it was the era of Water Gate. After spending some years writing in Santa Clara he became involved with public transit and used his writing skills to help plan transit routes and inform the public about their transit options. That was good for a while but in the 70’s his hunger for truth lead him to the University of Santa Cruz where he began studying anthropology.
While at UC Santa Cruz he began to adopt religious studies as a focus for his interest and this is where he began his path to becoming a pastor. Early in life Father Russ had not been particularly religious but once he began studying all facets of theology he was enthralled. However, in his words, “Religion is like language. You cannot speak language, you have to speak a language.” He followed that sentiment up with the first step to his Catholic faith, “religions are not really there to be studied, they are there to be participated in.” As a pastor he more than participates in his faith but he shares it. When asked about how serving as pastor relates to his early careers he explained that writing a news story and preparing a homily are functionally the same thing, he has to effectively communicate a message.
It was at age 40 that Father Russ was ordained and after two years as an administrator at Saint Patrick’s in Watsonville, he was asked to take his current position in San Luis Obispo. While he had been hoping for a position in the Santa Cruz area, he accepted the position and was immediately challenged. It was the year 2006 and at that time our city was beginning the seismic retrofit program for unreinforced buildings and he had to raise over $2 million to pay for the improvement. He remembered the feeling of a moral obligation to keep people safe but was impressed at the outpouring of support from the community. In that moment I could tell this was a point of pride for him. In fact, the Mission does not charge admission like so many others do. The Mission is completely funded on donations with a little bit of help from sales in the gift shop.
The Mission does not charge because Father Russ sincerely believes that all people should be welcomed into the church. “Many tourists come expecting a tour but leave having had a spiritual experience.” In complete candor, he explains that operating a church in the middle of an urban environment is tough. The Mission contends with costs of the location such as limited parking, road closures and the events in the plaza. When pressed further on that relationship and whether that is a strain or not, Father Russ explains that he thinks that the Mission would be lonely anywhere else but Downtown.
It is at this point in our conversation that he brings up an intriguing subject, the discrepancy of the word Mission. In his perspective the word should be viewed first as a verb and a noun second. “Without the community, the Mission would not have a mission.” From his perch during mass he can see all four doors of the Mission, each one leading to a different part of the community outside of the Mission. One leads to the gardens, another to the parking structure, one Downtown and another yet out to the plaza. The door people use when they come and leave says a lot where they come from and where they are heading but it also says a lot about the fact that the Mission is a central point of our community.
Personally, I am thankful to have met Father Russell Brown to understand his perspective in our community. Our conversation meandered across other topics ranging from homelessness surrounding the Mission, briefly touched on politics and the wonderful ability of this town to set aside personal differences to come together for the common good. Several themes stayed present and caused me to walk away from that interview with a fondness for such a great man. He always relates back to his pursuit for truth, working toward the common good and community involvement. In our current state of politicians and leaders with questionable intentions and unacceptable tweets, it was refreshing to see that we have a man like Father Russ preaching the things most important to preserving humanity.
Written by: Executive Director Dominic Tartaglia