FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–“When I get to heaven,” Sydney Browning once told her younger sister, Shannon Carter, “I’ll think, ‘Now, I can eat all the bleu cheese I want.’
“But I wonder if God’s going to look at me and say, ‘I gave you that to enjoy on earth. You were worried about all the wrong things on earth. You’re not having bleu cheese here.'”
Her humor, Shannon noted, had, at times, theological insight.
Sydney, who would have turned 37 on May 14, was one of seven people murdered at Wedgwood Baptist Church by gunman Larry Ashbrook last September in Fort Worth, Texas.
After Sydney died in the Wedgwood shooting, the thought that people worry about the wrong things is more poignant than ever.
If Sydney worried about the wrong things, however, she did not show it much. The 36-year-old woman lived alone, 1,000 miles from her family. She often drove home to Phoenix, sleeping at truck stops on the way protected by her trusty Swiss Army knife. She worked at Success High School with troubled students, some who had criminal records or were in gangs.
“She would always say that she never was afraid of her students because she knew her students knew her and would not hurt her,” said friend Glynda Clark.
“If she got discouraged to any great degree, she never let us know,” her mother, Diana Browning, said.
Within the past year, however, Sydney had begun to tell family and friends that she felt she was going to be shot at school.
Although a direct relationship is difficult to make, after she was shot at church, several Scripture verses dealing with fear were found lying on the piano bench in her apartment, Clark said.
But fear and discouragement were not the distinguishing marks of Sydney’s life.
“She loved her kids and she knew [Success High] was where the Lord wanted her to be,” Clark said, adding that Sydney was named teacher of the year shortly after beginning there.
Sydney had a strong faith in God — never doubting her salvation from the time she became a Christian at 9 — and a strong, confident personality, her father, Don Browning, said.
“She didn’t care what you thought about her as long as you thought she was funny,” her mother said.
As a child, Sydney was a tomboy, preferring trucks and sports over dolls. The woman who often gave people nicknames gave herself one as a child — Rocky in place of her “girlish” middle name, Rochelle.
Don Browning, a music minister, said Sydney began to see her potential for leadership while on a high school choir tour to Europe. Sister Shannon saw the potential even earlier when as children they would perform “The Monkees” and “Abba” songs for their parents, with Sydney coordinating the song-and-dance routines.
The “daddy’s girl” loved to be at church, her mother said. Youth ministry and camps had made a strong impression on her, and she volunteered at camps in Arizona and in other states.
“I think [camp] was something she knew formed her and gave her security,” Shannon said. “She would pour out all of her energy into the youth camp.”
Sydney related to people of all ages, from greeting senior adults every Sunday in church to making up thrilling stories for her two young nephews, Samuel and Seth. She turned her penchant for remembering details into a ministry, doing things as simple as calling people by name to remembering special items that people liked and collecting them throughout the year for a special occasion.
When the Carters returned from Sydney’s funeral, their sons, who did not know she had died, asked, “Did Aunt Sydney send me anything?” Shannon recounted.
The Carters gave the boys things Sydney had been collecting for them, which the Carters found in Sydney’s apartment.
“She would take the time to make tapes for me of various artists that are such an encouragement to me,” Shannon added.
Sydney also wrote encouraging notes to people.
“She would write to my husband and say, ‘You’re the best brother-in-law’ or ‘You’re the greatest dad,'” Shannon said.
When Samuel started school this year, a note from Sydney said she would be praying for him and encouraged him to “make her proud to be his aunt.”
Sydney had watched Clark boys, both teenagers now, grow up. A few years ago, she gave them a memory book that she had worked on for quite a while, Clark recalled.
“At the time, I wondered why is she giving it to them now because there are more things to put in there. Now I’m glad she did,” Clark said.
Sydney never married, probably because she understood the seriousness of the commitment.
“She would always say, ‘I just haven’t found somebody that I’m willing to change my life for,'” Shannon said.
Her parents attribute her single life to her strong personality and active life that left her with little time “to work on a relationship.”
But her mother noted that Sydney was content being single.
Sydney’s soothing, mellow singing voice matched her easygoing nature. She never had formal music training but grew up in a “singing family.”
Her sister and parents called her “a homebody,” recalling her desire to live at home and attend a community college after high school.
Knowing that she would be content to “eat chips and salsa” at home every day, her parents, who wanted her to go to an out-of-state college, compromised by having her attend and live in the dorms at nearby Grand Canyon College.
Her surprising decision to go to Texas for seminary, where she earned a religious education master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1991, was followed by the equally surprising decision to make Fort Worth her home. But Sydney had found another home in Cowtown — at her church, in the adult choir, as director of the children’s choir, and as a Success High teacher.
“She liked being home,” Shannon said. “She liked being with people she knew and felt comfortable with.”
Sydney must like who she’s with and where she is now — whether there’s bleu cheese there or not.
Additional (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo titles: BROWNING SINGING AT CHURCH and BROWNING ENCOURAGES STUDENTS.