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To Mars from Ginter Park

Full disclosure: reading each of the marvelously written posts from my fellow new Session members over these past few weeks has done nothing to allay my “blog anxiety” as I reflected on what I might write in this space. How lucky am I to start this Session adventure with four such talented, dedicated, and inspiring individuals as Shannon, Mati, Paul and Mary!

My first pass at this blog post was an essay comparing my decision to serve on Session to the time I bought a large, very expensive bottle of mouthwash when I was living in Cairo. It was tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps not quite the tone I wanted to strike as a new Elder. I found a better framework in the poem, “We are going to Mars,” by Nikki Giovanni, excerpted below.

We are going to Mars for the same reason Marco Polo rocketed to China,

For the same reason Columbus trimmed his sails on a dream of spices,

For the very same reason Shackleton was enchanted with penguins,

For the reason we fall in love,

It is the only adventure.

As a young person, some of my favorite encounters were with stories or people from other cultures. GPPC was a place where I could feed this desire to understand those outside of my “bubble.” Whether on mission trips to the Eastern Shore and Atlanta, or on a trip to Washington, DC to experience Jewish or Islamic worship traditions, or through stories told by our visiting missionaries or other travelers in our congregation, church offered me a venue to explore my interests and cultivate my love of learning and travel. Spending my childhood and youth in an environment that was both safe and encouraging of exploration no doubt played a role in my determination to have my own “only adventure,” though my sights were never set quite so far as Mars.

We are going to Mars because whatever is wrong with us will not get right with us so we journey forward, carrying the same baggage

In rapid succession starting at age 29, I lived an average of 2 years each in Mitrovica, Kosovo; Kampala, Uganda; and Baltimore, Maryland. I then stayed in Cairo, Egypt for nearly 4 years but traveled to at least one other country each month during that period. Journeying forward, always carrying the same baggage. (Well, emotional baggage, that is. Just ask my mother to tell you about my expansive collection of suitcases.)

I approached each new destination with the same eagerness to explore and feel at home: find the grocery store, join a gym, hit up the nearest quiz night. This process always kept me well-occupied for 6 months or so, but soon enough I found myself wishing I belonged in a community like the one I grew up in. A community where I could be with others in one place for more than 24 months, all of us bringing our individual talents to bear to try and shine light into our corner of a dark world.

In April 2015, during a particularly difficult moment, I sat at my breakfast table overlooking the Nile and visualized a happier life. One in which I was no longer shouldering the baggage alone. GPPC was part of the picture.

One day looking for prejudice to slip,

One day looking for hatred to tumble down the waste side,

Maybe one day the Jewish community will be at rest, the Christian community will be content, the Muslim community will be at peace

And all the rest of us will get great meals at holy days and learn new songs and sing in harmony.

I spent the rest of the spring and summer of 2015 making plans to move back to Richmond. During those months I watched troubling events unfold in the U.S. from afar: Freddie Gray’s death and the subsequent unrest in Baltimore, the vile, hate-filled killing of congregants at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, Sandra Bland’s arrest and death. It struck me that I had never tried to understand my own country in the way I had sought to understand places like Kosovo, Egypt, Syria, or Palestine.

I also began to understand that maybe I could put my experiences abroad to good use, to maybe start telling stories of love, mercy, and friendship that I encountered in surprising places. To be as unafraid to talk to, share a meal with, to see the image of God in men and women in Richmond as I was to do those things with a farmer in Afghanistan; a refugee in Beirut.

I thought to myself: I don’t know how I’m gonna do all of this, but I’ll bet spending more time in the GPPC community will get me started.

We are going to Mars because it gives us a reason to change.

Since moving back to Richmond two years, ago, I’ve been asked a few times whether I’m bored with Richmond yet or when I’m going to move back overseas. I know better than to think I won’t ever want to travel again, but for now I’ve set to the task of achieving change – both personal and within our community – without making the trouble of going all the way to Mars. After two decades spent focusing on my career ladder, collecting passport stamps and just generally always looking for the next big thing, I’ve set an intention for patience, perseverance, and settling in.

My decision to join Session at GPPC is therefore the continuation of a personal change process; an expression of gratitude for all I have received; and a commitment to a community that has been committed to me for 40 years running.

Sarah Workman lives in the Northside – Barton Heights specifically – with her big beagle, Maia.  She works at Initiatives of Change/Hope in the Cities, where she spends her days thinking, writing, and talking about how we can upend our country’s belief in a human hierarchy which damages ourselves and pervades our systems still today. Outside of work, you can sometimes find her joyfully swimming laps at the Northside Family YMCA, throwing clay pots at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, tossing carrots to Maia during their evening walks near church, or taking in the Richmond Ballet’s latest studio performance.  Around GPPC, you may know Sarah better as “Eleanor’s daughter,” an identity she accepts with great pride. 

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