Originally published by Cherin C. Poovey in Wake Forest Magazine.
The Rev. Susan Sparks (JD ’87), senior pastor of historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, will be the featured preacher Aug. 7 and 14 on “Day 1,” the nationally broadcast radio program also accessible by podcast at Day1.org.
Trained as a trial lawyer, then a stand-up comedian, and finally as an ordained minister, Sparks says she is the “only female stand-up comedian in the country with a pulpit.” She is the author of “Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor.”
What is your definition of passion?
Passion is something that comes from deep within. It is the feeling that something or someone is a part of you. In terms of work or career, passion means finding a path that makes you feel whole. My “path” or “passion” took a while to find ….
After ten years as a trial lawyer, I left the practice to pursue a career in ministry and stand-up comedy, a job that frankly, didn’t exist. I had felt a call to the ministry for some time, but was unsure how a comedian would ever fit into organized religion. I decided to travel around the world hoping to find some — any kindred spirits. I traveled for two years doing everything from working for Mother Teresa and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to driving my Jeep Wrangler from NYC to Alaska. Everywhere I went, whether it was the laughter of Buddhist monks or the Sacred Clowns of the Navajo, I found examples of how comedy — joy and laughter — was an integral part of the Holy. Consequently, I returned and entered Union Theological Seminary, graduating with an honors thesis on humor and the sacred.
Today I have turned that dream into a reality, as I am the senior pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City (and the first woman in its 160-year history). I am also a working standup; my most recent shows were a tour with a stand-up Rabbi and a stand-up Muslim comic. http://www.rccongress2010.net/speakers/multifaithcomedyteam.shtml
What technique or exercise gets you through the challenging times?
Humor. As a comedian and a breast cancer survivor, I know firsthand about the healing power of laughter in hard times. In fact, an entire chapter of my new book is dedicated to it. I entitled it “Into the Ark” from a poem by Nobel Laureate poet Wislawa Szymborska: “An endless rain is just beginning. Into the ark, for where else can you go.” To me, humor is that ark. Humor is the ark that will allow us to rise above life’s hard times. It is God’s way of lifting our burdens, if just for a split second, to allow us a moment to breathe and to heal.
Suffering is not who we are; it is what we are experiencing. When we find something to smile about in a place of pain, the balance of power shifts and we reclaim control. We take life back. Laughter reassures us that no matter what comes at us, even if it defeats us, it will never define us.
Tell us about your upcoming sermons.
My sermon for Aug. 7 is titled “So You’re a Christian? Whattaya Gonna Do About It?” I help listeners think in a fresh way about what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian can change your life for the rest of your life. But please understand this is a life decision. It’s not like going on Nutrisystem where you do it for four months and you’re done …. You’re either in or you’re out. And if you go all in, it means everything is on the table; it means you carry it through to your very last breath.
On Aug. 14, “The Mulch Pile,” draws from Paul’s teachings in Colossians 3:1-10. Paul reaches out and asks us all: What trash (anger, fear, shame, jealousy) do you need to throw on the mulch pile? And what beautiful new things will you grow in its place?
Who drove you to be who you are?
My mom was my encouragement. She grew up in a time when women did not have the full opportunities to work or pursue their dreams. She not only encouraged me to go after my dreams, she taught me to honor the freedom and privileges I now have that she never did. Sometimes you just have to blaze a trail. Just because the world isn’t doing it yet, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
What one word best describes your success?
Believe. That’s the one word that describes it. You have to follow what your heart calls you to do — no matter how improbable it seems. As a standup comedian, where was I going to find a home in the church? Please. But, paths open up that you never expect and here I am negotiating a career that up until now did not exist. Whatever you do, don’t wake up one morning after a long career in something you hate and realize 40 years are gone and you can’t get them back. Believe. Just believe …
Do you have an inspirational quote to share?
I think my motto is best summed up from a quote in the movie “Kung Fu Panda:” “Our destiny is usually found on the road we take to avoid it.”