In 2003, I was a dreamer working my way through a seminary degree, but longing for something different than a traditional congregation. I dreamed of being a part of a collective that would join together with folks on the margins, where we would form solidarity with one another and work together for liberation. My dream was to create an environment of solidarity and mutuality with the oppressed, where all of us could flourish and find freedom.
Several other seminarians shared a similar dream, so we began imagining what we might create with one another. In 2005, we made those dreams reality by moving to Charlotte’s Enderly Park neighborhood. We started an intentional community and hospitality house where we lived, opening our doors to the people on our street to see how we might learn and struggle together. Fifteen years later, our ministry, begun in a small house, has grown to include a vibrant Cultural Organizing and Neighborhood Empowerment Program, a small portfolio of long-term affordable housing, and the ongoing birth of new dreams and new tools to work for liberation through our efforts in community organizing. The nonprofit that my initial work has grown into is called QC Family Tree. We do neighborhood-based community development, with the goal of cultivating community for the common good. We want to create a little village where abundance is coming to life. QC Family Tree now offers a variety of innovative grassroots programs.
Why do you need a sabbatical and how would you personally benefit from it?
I am tired and concerned about burnout. This fatigue has several sources. For one, I have often taken on other jobs or contract work in order to make my own life, and the life of the organization, more financially sustainable. This means long hours, usually without the financial payoff that many of my peers receive for their work in other sectors. The gift of some leisure time will help me to restore creative energy, physical and mental health, and a more balanced family life.
Secondly, a foundational principle of QC Family Tree from the beginning has been that those of us who work for the organization choose to live in the neighborhood where we serve. This is a crucially important idea for us, as we believe that proximity to the issues we are working on provides some critical insight into the work we do, and helps to build deeper solidarity among the people with whom we work. However, this decision comes with some costs that we continue to learn. The traumas that our neighbors experience are acute, and many days feel like they progress from crisis to crisis. The reality of secondary trauma is regularly passed on to me and our other staff, and we have been subjected to some firsthand traumas as well. We recognize this as part of the nature of the work we do. We also recognize that we are not invulnerable to its long-term effects. Regular sabbaticals and rest periods are needed for us to remain fresh and to continue in the struggle. These are far too infrequent now, and I feel the effects of that. I also recognize that many folks around me could use a sabbatical, but the nature of their work would never permit it. I am grateful for such an opportunity, though I mourn its absence for workers in other sectors. That sense of solidarity with other workers around me is a large part of why I have not pursued a sabbatical until now.
Grassroots and innovative work within marginalized communities is slow and difficult work. I know that this work takes a lot of time and, while there are little lights of joy along the way, the big progress is slow. I know that this is “long game” work and I want to be in it for the long haul. I need time to rejuvenate and refresh so that I do not burn out and so that I can remain present and attentive to the organization in the future.
What are some of the planned activities you hope to pursue during the sabbatical period?
During my sabbatical, I hope to engage in lots of reflective time that will help to care for both body and spirit. I will increase my practice of yoga, exercise, take naps, increase my art practice, and cultivate a slower rhythm of life. I hope to spend lots of time in nature and in solitude - hiking and retreating. I intend to go through The Artist’s Way and will ask the QCFT staff to do the same.
I also intend to work on a body of artwork entitled “Sanctuary.” “Sanctuary” is a series of 2D and 3D works, that honor the sacred in the ordinary and draw attention to justice issues as they are experienced in West Charlotte, NC. They also raise the question of the role of the Church in these issues. Ideally set in a church sanctuary, the works include liturgical objects made from found materials. Each object- Reliquary, Baptismal Font, Communion Table, Chalice, Paten, Pulpit, Vestment- compels the viewer to consider the intersection of faith, justice, and social change. “Sanctuary” is an extension of the Reliquary works Helms created as a part of her artist residency at the McColl Center for Arts and Innovation. Reliquary: Evicted is a series of 3 sculptures made from items found at eviction sites. The pieces honor those who have been evicted from West Charlotte and they ask the question, “How could the Church let this happen?”
I would like to take an exploration trip to 2-3 sanctuaries for research on my art project. Additionally, I would like to go on one trip with my family. Regular vacations have not been a part of our lives, due to the nature of our work and the financial limitations we have, so the opportunity to explore together would be very important to me.
Through a slower pace of self-care practices, I hope to regain a deeper sense of myself and the balance I need to live and work well for the future.
How do you see yourself approaching your work differently after the sabbatical?
Recently, my coworker (Greg) was able to take a two month sabbatical. I noticed when he was away that all of the staff were able to exercise creativity and resourcefulness. They solved problems in new and different ways in his absence. I want this same opportunity to develop with my sabbatical for me and for QC Family Tree. If I am able to take a break, the organization will be able to stretch and grow and rejuvenate, too.
I hope when I return to QC Family Tree, that I get to step into some refreshed ways of thinking and doing things, perhaps with newly formed roles and responsibilities. I hope to return with more clarity about my own role within the organization and how to fulfill it well without overfunctioning. Sabbaticals, when they work, tend to help clarify roles and senses of vocation, and to renew both passion and compassion. With an extended break, I hope to return renewed and more clear about the important work I need to do in the world.
Here’s how the sabbatical will take shape:
Nov- Dec 1:
Make plan for leadership roles, distribution of responsibilities.
Make budget for sabbatical
Find a studio space to use
Schedule/hire movers for studio art supplies
Recruit QCFT Ambassadors to intentionally engage in Southern Movement Assembly, ROOTs, etc on behalf of CLT and QCFT.
Dec 1-20- On Ramping
Set up away msgs, write note for email newsletter and social media prep
Set up Quavian touch points
Reserve and pick up library books
Download podcasts and playlists
Ask loved ones to collect podcasts and playlists and other gifts to send to her for sabbatical
Move studio supplies
Prep and provide all info for Myers Park Artist Theologian in Residence role
Prepare sending items
Take on calendar events and to do’s
Help figure out coverage of Helms’ responsibilities
Dec 20-31- Holiday
Jan 1-9- Start Sabbatical Away-
Go away, be quiet, no guessing on food, lodging, travel, and safety. Ease is key.
Jan 9- Lead an Epiphany workshop for the feast day celebration- Epiphany!
Jan 10- March 5 primarily in Charlotte, some short road trips
Helms will: Sanctuary visits, yoga, quiet, hiking, read The Artists’s Way, check out, tune in, 1 longer time away with Jarrells
Helms will go away for ceremony, closure, ritual
Helms re-engages with Myers Park Artist Theologians in Residence role
Helms eases back in to QCFT work with 20 hrs a week
Staff engages in welcome, ceremony, catch up
Sabbatical report/write up and art show in April