Killed in a church shooting, Sydney Browning never had a chance to meet the 62 second-graders of Granada Primary School. But today she’s changed their lives, thanks to a university’s 11-year promise fulfilled.
Some things are hard to make sense of, like the evening of Sept. 15, 1999, when Larry Gene Ashbrook walked into Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and opened fire, killing seven people before turning the gun on himself.
The first to die was a woman named Sydney Browning, the children’s choir director and a teacher at an alternative school for at-risk youth. The 36-year-old had been sitting on a sofa in the foyer, chatting with friends as she waited for choir rehearsal to start. Somehow she came into Ashbrook’s line of sight, so he shot her in the head and kept walking, ultimately firing more than 60 rounds.
The shooting sent shock waves across the country, making front-page headlines. Police found no explanation for the rampage, no connection between the troubled loner and the church.
A thousand miles away in Browning’s hometown of Phoenix, the former president of her alma mater, Grand Canyon University (GCU), was determined to see some good come out of the tragedy. So Gil Stafford did something that, to some, made little sense for the cash-strapped Christian school: He offered full scholarships to 62 elementary-school students—second-graders at the time of Browning’s death who attended a low-income school in west Phoenix. In another decade, if they met GCU’s admissions requirements, their college tuition would be fully paid. GCU called them Sydney’s Kids.
“It was a tribute to her, her life and what she did,” Stafford says. “Those children were under-served, underprivileged, disadvantaged children that are representatives of the thousands and thousands and thousands of kids in Arizona who are shown no respect because of the color of their skin or because they can’t speak English or just because they have poor parents. The connection of the two was what Christian people should be doing. It’s the thing Christians should be doing every day of their life.”
Despite nearly closing its doors in 2004 and losing track of most of the kids, GCU has made good on its promise. Fifteen students started their freshman year this fall, and two more are to begin next year.
The move has brought the independent Christian school national media exposure on Fox News and CBS Radio. But for Daron Beck, the scholarship he received is no publicity stunt; it’s a miracle.
“I think it’s a blessing that God just took that tragedy of Sydney Browning’s death and [made] it into a miracle and gave scholarships to 62 second-graders,” Beck says.
Grand Canyon CEO Brian Mueller says the benefit isn’t one-sided; Sydney’s Kids is helping those who knew her heal. “Her life ... was obviously cut short,” he says, “but in another sense it wasn’t, because she continues to live on through those kids who are going to school.”
Shining a Light
Sydney’s family says the 1985 GCU graduate would likely be humbled by the honor but also a little amused. She was a fun-loving singer and basketball player, but she hadn’t been a standout student until her college years.
Her parents say they imagined her being involved in ministry, as a church administrator perhaps, but they didn’t expect her to gravitate toward helping at-risk youth. Sydney had almost finished college when she took a job at Arizona Baptist Children’s Services, a residential treatment home for youth.
“We didn’t really know that it was more than just a passing fad,” says Sydney’s father, Don Browning. “It just developed. Like a lot of kids, she needed a job and that was available and it was close.”
Her work with troubled youth wasn’t easy; her friends remember her coming home with a black eye after having to restrain a teen. But the Brownings say their daughter grew more and more committed.
After she graduated from GCU with a degree in criminal justice, Sydney moved to Fort Worth to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where she studied religious education. She became director of the children’s choir at Wedgwood Baptist Church and took a job teaching at an alternative school for at-risk teens called Success High School.
“They named it that as a wish,” Don Browning says. “Some of the kids had criminal records; some of them, this was their last chance. ... She loved teaching those kids.”
On Saturdays, Sydney often played basketball with some of her students. Browning says the teens became protective of Sydney, and they believed she’d watch out for them. Once, after a shooting near the school, her students asked if she’d take a bullet for them. “She said, ‘Yes, I will,’ ” Browning recalls, “‘because I know where I’m going.’”
Still, Browning never expected to have to face that possibility. He was attending the Wednesday night service at his own church in Phoenix when he found out Sydney had been shot. He and his wife, Diana, were called into their pastor’s office and told there had been a shooting accident and that Sydney had been hurt badly.
“We flew there that night,” Browning says. “As we walked in, her good friend was sitting there and she shook her head no. We really thought that was true from the start, that she had been killed. ... We just had that feeling.”
Funeral services were held at Southwestern Baptist Seminary and Success High. A large memorial service at Texas Christian University drew thousands and was broadcast on CNN. Then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush even attended.
Browning told the crowd about the first church solo his daughter ever sang, “This Little Light of Mine,” and led them in singing the tune. “Through her death, it has shined more than we could have ever imagined,” he said.
That was nearly a year before Stafford called and asked permission to start a scholarship in Sydney’s name. The Brownings welcomed the idea, but no one really knew what would become of it.
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