Category Archives: thorson-smith

Posts by Sylvia Thorson-Smith

Celebrating the Life and Witness of Mary Jane Patterson

Introductory article by Sylvia Thorson-Smith
PCUSAnews article by Jerry L. Van Marter
Mary Jane Patterson
With both grief over her loss and immense gratitude for her life, we mark the death of one of the great women — one of the great SHEROS — of the Presbyterian Church, Mary Jane Patterson. I invite those of us who knew and loved Mary Jane to share anything of what she has meant to you and all of us.

I’ll begin with one of my favorite sayings that Mary Jane used often (she actually credited Karl Barth for this one, I believe): we need to face life with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

As director of the Washington Office of the PCUSA for years, Mary Jane understood the relationship between Christian faith and social justice. She connected the dots between all issues of injustice and worked tirelessly to empower the church’s witness to Gospel love.

Mary Jane was a mentor to many of us, and I am particularly grateful for her unwavering support for feminist and racial ethnic advocacy in the PCUSA. We have lost one of our most influential and inspiring foremothers, and we must honor her by a more resolute struggle for peace and justice.

“Mary Jane Patterson dies
Presbyerian elder led Washington Office for 13 years”
by Jerry L. Van Marter
Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE ― Mary Jane Patterson, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elder who served as a social worker and missionary to Africa before enlivening the corridors of power in the nation’s capital as director of the Presbyterian Washington Office for 13 years, died April 8 in Washington.

A native of Marietta, OH, Patterson graduated from the Ohio State University, where she majored in philosophy and accounting before earning a master’s degree in social work. She worked in the business world for a few years before church work beckoned.

Her first assignment for the PC(USA), in 1966, was as a community developer and consultant on social work for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Kenya. Returning to the U.S. two years later, Patterson took on urban social work as staff for the National Council of Churches’ “Crisis in the Nation” program in Chicago and Los Angeles. In 1969, she accepted a post with Protestant Community Services of the Los Angeles Council of Churches as a community organizer and ombudsperson.

Patterson was appointed associate director of the PC(USA)’s Washington Office in 1971 and in 1976 was appointed director. For the next 13 years ― until her “retirement” in 1989 ― she was a fixture on Capitol Hill, pressing the church’s case on such issues as peace, human rights, development assistance, food policy, support for the United Nations and the entire range of foreign and domestic policy issues addressed by the PC(USA) General Assembly.

Throughout her life, Patterson was a staunch advocate of civil and human rights in the U.S. and around the world and earned the trust and respect of politicians of all stripes. She served on the Presidential Advisory Board for Ambassadorial Appointments under the Carter administration and was frequently called upon for advice by President Ronald Reagan despite their disagreements on many issues.

No one ignored Mary Jane Patterson.

She was named winner of the Peaceseeker Award by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in 1988 and was honored as a PC(USA) Woman of Faith in 1998.

Services are pending at Sargent Memorial Presbyterian Church in Washington, where Patterson served as an elder for many years.


Announcement of a Holy Union: Voices of Sophia and the Witherspoon Society Merge, by Sylvia Thorson-Smith

For about a year, the idea of a merger between the Witherspoon Society and Voices of Sophia has been in the works. Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated people in both groups, we are now happy to announce that this union is a reality.

It might be helpful to review a bit of the history of Voices of Sophia. VOS was organized in 1995 in response to the backlash against the 1993 feminist theological event known as “Re-Imagining.” It was felt by many who were active in the PCUSA at the time that those who advocated feminist values, particularly women staff, were under siege and needed a critical mass of support outside the structures of the church. For 13 years, Voices of Sophia has been an untamed witness on behalf of women and women’s issues, working in partnership with other progressive justice-loving groups in the Presbyterian Church, like the Witherspoon Society.

Discussions between these two groups began in conversations at General Assembly in 2008, and the serious work of exploring a merger commenced in the fall and early 2009. I came on the Witherspoon Board in part as a liaison between the groups. Basic agreement was reached between the leadership of WS and VOS on steps that would be taken, including the following:

1) four new members would join
the WS board as a VOS
caucus, participating fully in
decisions of the board and
providing a particularly feminist
perspective to its work;
2) the VOS caucus would be
responsible for continuing some
previous VOS work, such as
breakfasts that feature women
theologians at General Assembly;
3) at least for now, the balance of
VOS monies would be (and have
been) kept in a separate account,
managed by the WS budget
officer, and available for GA
breakfasts and other particularly
VOS/feminist-related needs; and
4) other details of the merger would
be worked out by the newly
enlarged board.

An email was sent to VOS members seeking three interested persons to join me in forming the VOS caucus of the board, and the following women enthusiastically offered to serve: Colleen Bowers, a nurse who lives in Baltimore, MD; Sylvia Carlson, a retired minister in Redstone Presbytery; and Molly Casteel, who until recently held a position as staff for women’s advocacy in the Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministry Program of the church.

In addition, Heather Reichgott (former board member of More Light Presbyterians) will be an adjunct member of the caucus and will manage a new feminist blog on the Witherspoon website. Heather is working with Doug King and her blog is now operational (check it out at

There are still issues to address regarding this merger, and these will be discussed at a board meeting in Minneapolis in May. For now, though, we are moving forward with energy and enthusiasm in this (hopefully) holy, justice-seeking union. It’s exciting to see it actually become a reality, because we all agree on the importance of maintaining a progressive/feminist voice in the PCUSA – even from the margins. We’ll want to keep communication flowing with the members of both groups, so this unified group can become an even stronger witness for peace and justice than we were separately. We hope that current members of WS and VOS will want to maintain your ties and new members will want to join.

We ask for prayers and all forms of support as we re-imagine a united Voices of Sophia/Witherspoon Society. Feel free to ask questions, give us input, and share ideas about how to strengthen our work together. I welcome emails regarding this merger (, and you may direct them to other board members as well. We look forward to reporting more progress in upcom- ing issues of Network News and on the website.