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In Appreciation of Tacoma’s Rev. Gladys Pratt

She Was the BCA’s First White Female Minister


Today, we appreciate and accept the diversity in our ministry.


But in 1936, the ordination of Rev. Gladys Sunya Pratt at the Tacoma Buddhist Church (later the Tacoma Buddhist Temple) was truly groundbreaking. 


The press descriptions of the time likely seem racist and sexist when describing Rev. Pratt as the “First White Buddhist Priestess.” Surprisingly, those terms were supplied by her sponsor, the Buddhist Mission to North America (BMNA), precursor to the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). 


Who was she really? Gladys Brice was born on Feb. 6, 1898, in Great Britain. Around the age of 14, she picked Buddhism for her spiritual path. She had studied all world religions, as urged by her philosopher father. She continued to study Buddhism on her own. 


As a young woman working as a typist at an air base during World War I, she met and fell in love with Canadian soldier Wesley Pratt. They were married and moved to Canada to begin a family. 


Around 1930, the Pratts moved to Seattle, and settled in Tacoma in 1931. She joined the Tacoma Buddhist Church in 1934, volunteering to share lessons in English to Nisei Dharma School kids and providing English talks to adults. 


In truth, she had been scouted and drafted. Rev. Robert Clifton (among the earliest Caucasian male BMNA ministers) saw her articles in English promoting Buddhism and tipped Bishop Rev. Kenju Masuyama. They encouraged her to lend a hand at the Tacoma temple. 


Sharon Sasaki, of the Buddhist Temple of San Diego, shares details not in other biographies of Rev. Pratt. Sasaki’s grandfather served as minister at the Tacoma temple from 1933 to 1934. 


Sasaki’s father, Rev. LaVerne Sasaki, described in his memoir, “Out of the Mud Grows the Wisteria,” how his father, Rev. Sensho Sasaki, suggested to Bishop Rev. Masuyama that Pratt would be a good addition to the ministerial staff. 


The senior Rev. Sasaki was not alone in this opinion. Others who supported Rev. Pratt’s ordination were Rev. Jokatsu Yukawa, the Tacoma minister from 1928-1933; the then-current Tacoma minister, Rev. Shoshu Sakow; and Bishop Rev. Masuyama.


Her successful work with the Tacoma Sangha made it easy to support her ordination. Her Dharma School classes filled the church close to bursting with Nisei youth, many of whom as adults would share tributes to Rev. Pratt as she approached retirement.


Rev. Pratt’s ordination on April 23, 1936, was a colorful spectacle before a packed temple and even controversial. Ritual was cobbled from Theravada and other sources. Possibly, Bishop Rev. Masuyama created the unique approach to better recruit Caucasian “diplomats” for Buddhism from the ranks of existing Buddhists not much familiar with Nembutsu Buddhism.


For some, Rev. Pratt’s nontraditional background may have been an issue. She was not raised or trained in Jodo Shinshu. The English-language materials of her time often idealized Buddhism as a universal faith, removed from living traditions. 


But once at the Tacoma temple, Rev. Pratt studied many publications on Shin Buddhism as curated by the BMNA office. Sometimes, the flannel board she used for Dharma School had her homemade cutouts for Shakyamuni Buddha and other times for Shinran Shonin.


As for her unorthodox ordination, she eventually caught up too, with a traditional formal ordination conducted by Bishop Rev. Kenryu Tsuji in 1969. 


Examples of Rev. Pratt’s loving support of the Japanese American community include the difficult years of World War II, when Japanese Americans were rounded up on the West Coast, uprooted from their homes, and sent to federal mass incarceration camps from 1942 to 1945. 


On the radio, Rev. Pratt protested the rise in anti-Japanese sentiment, explaining the community’s loyalty. When Tacoma Sangha members were first removed to a temporary shelter in horse stables, she talked her way past guards to visit and assist as best she could. Later, when the Sangha members were moved to permanent barracks, she traveled to help conduct Buddhist services and visit with them. 


And we should appreciate the ordinary nature of her life. When she began her official ministry in 1936, she was 38 years old, a mature adult, a mother of two, and had a full life of her own. She and her husband ran a modest home business, the Tacoma Button Company. 

This naturalness is counter to racist tropes implied in her legend; Rev. Pratt was not some exotic great white hero. She was, like us, an everyday person, in her way. 


And she knew suffering. In the late 1970s, her husband died in his early 90s, followed two years later by her daughter Veronica, who was 61. 


Rev. Pratt grew deeply depressed and withdrew from temple duties. Despondent, she would sometimes keep temple friends on the phone for hours, bemoaning her situation and grappling with how her life had changed. 


Fortunately, the friends eventually coaxed her back to the temple, where she regained some equilibrium, and could assist the resident minister. 


However, she may have lost some of her rigor. Her smoking became so heavy that she finished one cigarette before entering the Onaijin and would light another as soon as she exited. Or she would bring her cats to Dharma School classes where they had the run of student desks. No doubt such behavior rankled some Sangha members.


Like us, she was a bonbu, a mixed bag. When she faced challenges, her Sangha helped her as she had helped them. Such is the nonheroic ideal of living in Nembutsu. 


Rev. Pratt passed away on Feb. 11, 1986, a few days after turning 88.


Nearly four decades after her passing, she is remembered with fond memories for her work with the Tacoma Sangha. A collage of photos depicting Rev. Pratt can be found in the hallway outside the Hondo of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple. 


Rev. Pratt’s legacy continues in Tacoma to the present. The temple hosts a Rev. Sunya Pratt BEC (Buddhist Education Committee) seminar every year, and has a library room dedicated in her name. 


And, as for the legend? Technically, Rev. Pratt was not the first white female BMNA minister. One or more women preceded her, but their time with BMNA was short. 


For more information, I urge readers to read Justin Wadland’s excellent 2019 online article at https://historylink.org/File/20731. (In writing this appreciation, I am also indebted to the writings of Michihiro Ama, who is identified in Wadland’s online article.)  


Wadland summarizes Rev. Pratt’s legacy as follows: 


“As a figure in the larger history of Buddhism in the United States, she stands out as a female spiritual leader, notable for her steadfast dedication and service,” he wrote. 

And she stayed the distance. Among the 10 or so white Buddhists who in the 1920s or 1930s converted to Jodo Shinshu, Rev. Pratt was the only one who kept her connections to the BCA throughout her life. 


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