Call of the Valley: Sarah Vekasi
On the one hand, Sarah Sunshine Pottery is a thriving Black Mountain enterprise serving all of Buncombe County and attracting visitors far and wide. On a deeper level, Sarah Vekasi follows a calling to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and create a more sustainable way of life.
Here, in her home base, she not only found a welcoming community; she also discovered what Appalachia is like without coal and its debilitating effects on people’s health, offering instead the joys and benefits of fresh water and clear air.
“I love Black Mountain,” she said, “because we have a little bit of everything and the economy is not based around an extractive industry. Our community is strong and can economically support a working artist. It’s also in close proximity to the coalfields, so that I can drive there relatively quickly and carry on my ‘eco-chaplaincy.’”
Perhaps the best way to appreciate what she means by this special “initiative” would be to trace its evolution.
As a rural person growing up inside Glacier National Park in Montana where her dad was employed, she learned early on there was a conflict between land that was protected and the logging industry that surrounded it.
“Even in the park service,” she recalled, “the worst thing you could be is a tree hugger. An environmentalist, doing something besides logging.”
Which created a great paradox. She found a rural pride within the logging communities and deep-seated love of the land while, at the same time, folks owed their allegiance and livelihood to an industry that was tearing it apart.
Her awareness kept expanding when her dad’s work took the family to Acadia National Park in Maine. Soon after, she enrolled in The Evergreen State College in Washington State where she continued to explore ways to protect people and the land. There, in the college’s freewheeling curriculum, she studied environmental health and the dynamics of rural communities while, at the same time, she was deeply engaged in forest protection movements.
However, the struggles of activism and the deep burnout she and her colleagues were experiencing finally took its toll.
A Zen teacher drew her to a monastery in Japan where she stayed for three years searching for a pathway from “the cause of so much suffering and destruction of life on our planet” to a workable solution.
From there, she went on to Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado to create a new kind of pastoral care. While a graduate student at the Buddhist seminary, she was taken by Joanna Macy’s “Work That Reconnects.”
“What is it in you that wants to be life-giving?” was the gist of Macy’s wake-up call. “What is your gift to this world?”
Taken together, the contemplation in the monastery and Macy’s mentorship dovetailed into a reconnecting cycle. It enabled Vekasi to take people from gratitude for the life they’ve been given, through honoring their pain, to seeing with new eyes and coming alive to what they can bring to truly make a difference.
Later on, a pottery class at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts gave her a creative outlet, support system, and a viable way to earn a living. In this way she was free to establish a deep presence throughout the coal mining region offering meditations, prayers, and validation during commemorative marches through Appalachia and any and all movements toward racial equity and community stability.
“My role is as a chaplain,” Sarah Vekasi said. “I’m always on call.”
She also engages in retreats and open circles on her secluded property above Beech Street off Montreat Road. Here she focuses on restorative justice and the “Work That Reconnects.” The individual and collective goal in these sessions is to become transformative, open and communicative, released from a lifestyle of busyness. It requires reaching out and full eye contact to break the cycle. It requires total presence and awareness. It requires making deep connections and giving life meaning.