Sarah Farmer started life under less than ideal circumstances. Her early years were spent in a section of Chester marked with high rates of poverty, abandoned houses, and weed-covered fields. Today, on the verge of earning her PhD from Emory University and about to begin her new duties as associate research scholar with the Adolescent Faith and Flourishing Project at Yale Divinity School, Sarah stands as an exemplar of the human capacity to succeed in life despite seemingly impossible odds.
Three things stand out in Sarah’s mind as critically important influences in her early years. One was a mother who was determined not to let her surroundings drag her children down. Another was grounding in a deep religious faith. And a third was Chester Eastside Ministries, now Chester Eastside, Inc. (CEI), just across the street from where Sarah lived.
From early on, she participated in after-school activities there.
It was at CEI that a remarkable gift for self-expression through the written word was first noted by staff and volunteers. From the beginning, Sarah was a self-starter. She once created and presented a puppet show featuring Annie, an African American doll from the American Girl series.
As for Chester Eastside, Inc., it “exposed me to relationships and opportunities that helped me see beyond my local context. They also allowed me to exercise agency. For instance, in middle school, I held my first job helping in the library at CEM. Secondly, they allowed me to help others with reading. These opportunities built confidence in me and planted the seeds for my passion to teach and for the arts. Lastly, CEM has continued to serve as a resource throughout my vocational journey. I am really proud of and believe in the mission of CEM, and feel like there is much to learn through their efforts.”
In time the family moved south, where Sarah finished high school. But she never lost her dedication to the people of Chester and her attachment to Chester Eastside, Inc. In the early 2000s, as a student at Berea College, where she would later graduate cum laude, Sarah returned to CEI to help initiate the Peace, Leadership & the Arts Camp, which continues to this day.
She is the author of several articles in scholarly books and journals and the recipient of numerous awards. Sarah’s deep commitment to people facing major challenges in their lives is exemplified in her doctoral dissertation: Hope in Confinement: Moving Toward a Pedagogy of Restorative Hope. It concerns the plight of Black women in prison.
Sarah Farmer is now married and the mother of two children. Like her own mother, she is determined that they will have every opportunity to develop and use their gifts to the fullest. Under very different circumstances, it should be added.
Here is a letter Sarah penned to the Board of Chester Eastside, Inc.
I am writing this letter to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation of Chester Eastside Ministries and Rev. Bernice Warren. Chester Eastside Ministries (CEM) represents a beacon of light in the city of Chester.
CEM has been an abiding presence throughout every stage of my life. As a young girl, I lived across the street from CEM. Its programs were a site of exposure for me. Through its cultural arts program, CEM introduced me to ballet, tap dancing, piano, drama, and visual arts. Volunteers worked with me to advance my reading daily. I held my first job at CEM as a librarian, and then was invited to serve as a tutor with the volunteers who came from outside of the city. People such as Rev. Warren, Ed Dunlap, Elizabeth Dunlap and Bunty Barus connected me with Upward Bound, People’s Light Improvisational Theatre and Growing Up Female stage play. They also gave their time to take my brother and me to museums. These experiences fed into my sense of knowing that we did not have to be a statistic. These formative experiences provided exposure and an outlet, creating a pipeline to college (as opposed to a pipeline to prison).
Throughout my college years at Berea College in KY, I continued to return to CEM to assist with their summer camp as an English teacher. On one of my return visits, Bunty Barus encouraged me to start a peace camp. During my junior year of college, I connected with Rev. Warren and Wanda Moore (director of Peace in the Streets at the time) to make this vision a reality. Youth Arts Peace Camp was a huge success in Chester. As a college student, it taught me significant skills of comprehensive collaborative community-building. In this sense, CEM became a site of learning. As a native of Chester, it provided an avenue for me to pour into the lives of other youth. In this sense, CEM became a site of ministry.
Perhaps it is the merging of learning and ministry at CEM that fed into my desire to pursue a Master of Divinity at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. I tuned in to courses that uplifted the principles of religious education and community building. In addition, new questions emerged from my work with the Youth Arts Peace Camp and drove me to pursue doctoral studies. Although under different leadership, the Youth Arts Peace Camp continues. It has expanded in amazing ways.
Currently, I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Religion. My research centers on the concept of hope in populations of confinement as well as the role of art in critical emancipatory pedagogies. I work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. The foundation of this research has its roots in the transformative experiences I gained as a young girl in the City of Chester. From CEM, I learned that hope wells up in the most unsusceptible places.
In a world that is so unstable for Black and Latino boys and girls, CEM has remained consistent, committed, and concerned. Their concern for the needs of the City of Chester drives its programs. I have no doubt that CEM would not exist without the persistence of Rev. Bernice Warren. She serves as a living testament of the love of Christ. Her social witness is a critique of ministers who are distant from the tangible needs of the people they serve and an encouragement for ministers who seek to transform society. Despite the difficulty of raising financial support in this economy, Rev. Warren remains loyal to the vision of CEM. I have continued to grow as a wife, mother, minister, and academic because of her mentorship in my life. She is a manifestation of what faith and works can do. Her efforts are truly a source of life and hope in the City of Chester. For her hard work and compassion, Rev. Warren deserves any and every honor given her.