Martha Rollins hasn't so much retired as moved from one instrument of social change to another.
The founder and retired CEO of the nonprofit Boaz & Ruth, which sought to provide economic empowerment for Highland Park and second chances to people in need, has pulled up a chair at Coming to the Table, a program whose goal is no less ambitious than healing the wounds of slavery in the U.S.
Coming to the Table was founded nine years ago at Eastern Mennonite University by descendants of slaveholders and the enslaved. It seeks to achieve its aims by uncovering history, making connections, working toward healing and taking action.
Rollins learned about the organization around the time of her 2012 retirement, and she attended its national conference with author Danita Rountree Green. Rollins and Green convened a Richmond affiliate this year whose members meet in two groups, on the third Tuesday and third Thursday of each month.
Rollins founded Boaz & Ruth in 2002 with the goal of establishing a commercial hub that would help revitalize the Highland Park neighborhood through job training, commercial development and a re-entry program for individuals released from jail or prison.
Just as Rollins used Boaz & Ruth as a way to forge ties between individuals and communities who might not otherwise connect, she views the shared personal stories, support network and resources provided by Coming to the Table as "a way of bridging the chasm caused by our 2½ centuries of slavery."
Asked how her current passion relates to her previous work, Rollins asked: How can we know one another without time spent together in meaningful projects and conversations? How do we spend time together when we live so separately?
"Boaz & Ruth connects folks across race and class and geography through shared meals, events and projects," she said. "Coming to the Table connects folks through time spent sharing a meal and conversation - sometimes courageous and always fun."
Her courage manifested itself in a family tragedy and the way she chose to apply it to her current mission.
Two years ago, an intruder broke into Rollins' home and her husband, former Virginia Secretary of Public Safety O. Randolph Rollins, was stabbed. While this incident for others might have registered as a cause for bitterness, Martha Rollins extracted a metaphor for the discomfort that must be endured on the road to reconciliation.
She recalled that the doctor treated her husband's wounds while offering the following instruction: "The important thing is how he heals. It's so critical that he heals from the inside out. If he won't endure this pain now, he won't have a satisfactory healing. A Band-Aid on the wound will only cause it to fester."
"It's a long journey to freedom for everybody," she said, "and we can't do it alone."
IN HER WORDS
Role models for me have evolved. My first acknowledged role model was Albert Schweitzer. I was drawn by the way his deep Christian faith led him to leave his privileged place in society to create both classical music and medical care in Africa. I was inspired by watching Martin Luther King push against an unjust status quo, causing it to begin to change. My husband, Randy Rollins, inspires me with his lived motto of “Crisis, Change, Opportunity.” And since I have reached my seventh decade, I realize how much my parents - in their living and their approach to dying - are modeling a way of faith and gratitude.
"The Half Has Never Been Told," Edward E. Baptist’s well-researched book, unfolds the history of slavery and American capitalism that I truly had never heard before. Learning this history impacts my priorities and actions today. If we intentionally used enslaved people for 2½ centuries to grow our country into a wealthy nation, it is only right that we intentionally make amends to the descendants of enslaved men and women.
Something that might surprise others
I love to cut trails through rough wooded terrain - for walking, for horseback riding, for ATV exploring. I like to figure out how to make a way through obstacles - how to “get there from here."
Something you’d like to do
I’d like to write a book, and I’d really like to be able to sing well. I love music, but the best I can do is be the "joyful noise" in our church choir and play Pandora.
Alternate profession or course of study
I briefly touched on many majors in college - physics, English, French, accounting - before I finally settled in as a religion major because it included all of my interests and wrapped them together with purpose.
A small moment in life with a big impact
In summer of 1958, I was 15, sitting on the lawn of Massanetta Springs retreat center with our pastor, Wentz Miller, a former WWII bomber-pilot-turned-banker and then minister. We were discussing faith. He shared that during his tour of duty, he was often called to scary action ... and he often questioned his beliefs. Until one day, he thought that he may as well act as if God were real all the time and that he does what he promises. Wentz figured that he had a 50 percent chance that this was true. It was a chance worth taking. So in all things he tried to act as if God is real. Over my life I have come to discover that’s all God needs - a beginning faith. When I am stuck or fearful, I remember our Massanetta conversation and choose to act on God’s repeated presence. Real God consistently reminds me that the way things are are not the way things have to be. As person of faith, my job is to call things that are not as if they were ... to call them into being, to be his partner in creation through words and actions.
I live daily aware that "accomplishments" are "ours" and very rarely "mine." I am most satisfied when I am able to move a group of people beyond saying "it can’t be done" to “look what we were able to do." This applies to cutting a trail, getting a jeep unstuck, helping to move an organization from vision to reality. I am equally satisfied when I can help be a connector linking folks across long-held barriers of race and class.
Favorite thing about Richmond region
The diversity and gifts of its citizens and its abundance of parks and trees.
Position: founder and retired CEO, Boaz & Ruth
Born/hometown: March 22, 1943; Martinsville
College: Duke University
Family: husband Randy; children Ginny, Betsy and Will