Photo: Alessandra PetlinBy Arianna Davis
Fifteen years ago, pastor Susan Sparks didn't even go to church. She was an attorney for Citibank, drafting contracts and defending litigation claims. After hours, she exercised her natural talent for making people laugh, performing stand-up in small comedy clubs around Manhattan. But when she went to bed at night, Sparks felt an absence of purpose: "My parents taught me to leave things better than I found them," she remembers. "I used to lie there and think, What did I leave better today?" So she quit her job, packed a bag, and set off to find her true calling.
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"I was raised in a very conservative-and alienating-Baptist tradition down South, and that was all I knew," Sparks says. "I wanted to sink into new religions." So she spent time with a Hindu family in India, meditated with Buddhist monks in Nepal, and visited an imam in Cairo. But her turning point came at Mother Teresa's orphanage in Calcutta, where she met a 5-year-old deaf child named Anna. Sitting in Sparks's lap, Anna put her ear against her chest. Sparks laughed, and Anna, feeling the vibrations, squealed with delight. "We did this for hours," says Sparks. "It was like God dropped a sign: 'Laughter and spirituality go together!'"
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Back in New York, she enrolled in a seminary with the hope that she might use her humor to help people see the divine in a more joyful way. Since 2000 Sparks has been a minister at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, preaching on subjects such as what Christians can learn from Elvis fans ("They believe the King lives, honey, and we can all use some of that faith"). Last May Sparks published her first book, Laugh Your Way to Grace. "If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself," she says. "And if you can forgive yourself, then you can forgive others."
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When her church schedule permits, Sparks tours the country with rabbi-slash-comic Bob Alper and Muslim comedian Azhar Usman using religion as fodder for their act ("Southern Baptists don't talk about sex," says Sparks. "It could lead to dancing.") Comedy and ministry do the same thing, she explains: "They help people feel less alone. And that's a very healing thing."
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