The Rev. Susan G. Sparks ’84 has a special source of guidance on her bookshelf at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Manhattan — Pink Jesus.
She can pick up the bubble gum-colored statuette, ask him a question and flip him upside down to see the answer that floats up to a window on his feet; Pink Jesus speaks in the ways of a Magic-8 Ball.
Sparks demonstrated for the Carolina faithful attending the New York Carolina Club’s annual arts brunch in May, where the pastor and comedian was honored for her outstanding contribution to the arts.
“Is Carolina just the greatest university in the galaxy?” she asked, giving Pink Jesus a good shake.
“Amen,” came the answer.
“Pink Jesus, what do you think about my fake snakeskin Carolina blue jacket?”
“I still love you,” responded Pink Jesus, whom Sparks found a decade ago in a Lower East Side gift shop.
“I’m a big believer that laughter is the most powerful gift we have in this life. Absolutely,” Sparks told the brunchers. “It brings perspective, it helps us see the commonalities we have with each other, it lifts us up in hard times.” She knows this from personal experience. She survived cancer and a broken marriage — and kept laughing.
For Sparks, the Bible can be summed in two sentences. “If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, then you can forgive others,” she said. “There, I saved you a year and a half worth of reading.”
Raised a Southern Baptist, Sparks discovered her calling at age 6, delivering the Holy Word to a lineup of stuffed animals. But when she shared her dream in Vacation Bible School, the teacher told her, “God only calls men to preach.”
She would spend some two decades away from the church before returning to work against sexist and religious stigmas, touring with a comedy troupe of other misunderstood religious leaders since 2005. Joined by a rabbi and a Muslim comic, her “Laugh in Peace Tour” shares jokes and builds understanding.
At the brunch, Bob Alper, the rabbi of the group, pondered Sparks’ possible superlatives: “What to choose from the banquet of qualities and accomplishments that are hers?”
There was, of course, her surviving cancer and now “lending strength and hope to those traveling the same dark road.”
Or perhaps that her first book, Laugh Your Way to Grace: Reclaiming the Spiritual Power of Humor, has sold more than 25,000 copies.
Or maybe just the simple fact that her middle name really is Grace.
A different path
Sparks, a “Harley-riding, cowboy-boot addict” by her own admission, has mixed comedy in unlikely places for decades.
A political science and speech major as well as senior class president at Carolina, Sparks attended law school at Wake Forest University and started her career as a trial lawyer in Atlanta in 1987. In the beginning, she wasn’t very funny, and she was up against “all these good ol’ boys” who could “spin those stories,” and “most importantly, honey, they were funny.” They’d use humor to sway the juries: “Game over.”
So Sparks enrolled in comedy classes, and it worked. “You can get anybody to believe anything if you are funny,” she said.
After a decade in law, she went on a journey of self-discovery, spending two years traveling the world alone, including stops to meditate with Buddhist monks in Nepal, to meet an imam in Cairo and to work with a deaf child at Mother Teresa’s mission in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). The 5-year-old girl delighted in the vibrations of Sparks’ laugh, which Sparks took as a sign from God to that other little girl who had once preached to her stuffed animals. Sparks returned stateside to put humor back in the Baptist church.
At Union Theological Seminary, she wrote her honors thesis on the intersection of humor and religion. “My point is that laughter brings intimacy and honesty into all relationships,” Sparks told the Review in 2002 as she was about to graduate from seminary. “Honest worship and prayer must embrace all aspects of humanity, including laughter. God laughs, so we should laugh with Him.”
Since then, she has become the first female senior pastor of her church — “Booyah!” she notes in celebration on her website, susansparks.com. She has been featured by the likes of Oprah and appreciated by congregations who crave the open candor of a preacher who wears embroidered Easter boots — brown skulls for the crucifixion, pink leather for the resurrection and flames on the toes for the Pentecost — and hauls around a Pink Jesus to help tell it like it is.
“In the end, comedy is what’s going to save us,” Sparks told the crowd at the arts brunch. “Can I have an ‘amen’?”
— Emily Palmer ’14