Stop! In the Name of Love…From Cha Cha to Chaplaincy
The Rev. Laurence Miller (ChIME ’13), moved with his husband from South Portland, Maine to Danvers, Massachusetts a year ago. Still he commutes to Portland every week to serve in a unique chaplaincy role at two skilled nursing, rehabilitation and long-term care centers.
Imagine that you are an elderly, chronically ill and/or disabled woman or man living at the Barron Center, run by the City of Portland; or someone in long-term or memory care at St. Joseph’s Retirement Center, a traditionally Catholic facility now run by Maine Medical Center. Imagine that you need a walker, or a wheelchair, or a rolling assisted bed to get around the place. You hear that the chaplain is visiting today. Then you hear music. Then he invites you to dance. How can you refuse? Maybe you can’t get on your feet, but you can get on the beat.
“From Cha Cha to Chaplaincy” is how Rev. Miller describes his working life, which now includes more than 40 years as a professional dancer and dance teacher, and 7 years offering “Musical Chairs,” a trademarked program of dance adapted for the people described above. Where did he get the idea for this unique chaplaincy? To find the answer, we took an imaginary trip home with Laurence, and watched his eyes shine as he described elderly couples, including his parents, dancing at the American Legion in Baltimore:
A man walks onto the dance floor with his partner and his cane. He props the cane on a chair. He takes his partner around the waist. They glide around the floor, break into a swing type action, smiling and laughing during the whole song. Another couple joins them, more couples enter the floor. Before long, the floor is packed. Everyone bouncing and dancing fiercely. The music and camaraderie take them back to being young men and women again. Back to life without wrinkles. They forget they are old! The music stops and they return to their slow walks and the cane.
Laurence was not only a dancer when he came to ChIME. He was a Reiki master and was steeped in other forms of moving and still meditation, including Tai Chi for Arthritis. He had taught dance in other countries and on cruise ships, managed his own studio, and taught dance at Bates, Bowdoin and Colby Colleges. “I was burned out on dance, and wanted a change,” Laurence recalls. “I’d neglected my health, my relationships, and my spirituality, or so I thought. Later I realized that dance has always been how I expressed my spirituality. I just needed another way to share music and lead people into having fun together.”
A long-term care facility might not be the first place you’d think of for having fun, and when Laurence started as a chaplaincy intern at the Barron Center, he wasn’t having much fun, either. Dressed in black pants and shirt, Laurence recalls, he looked like “Assistant to the Grim Reaper.” Stopping into residents’ rooms, he found he was regarded more as the “Chaplain of Death” than the “Chaplain of Joy” that he wanted to be. Soon Laurence ditched the black clothes in favor of his signature colorful socks and bow tie. When the Activities Director suggested he “get the residents to move a little,” Laurence choreographed a dance number for the Christmas show. One of the dancers in the show had been a major dance teacher in Maine before losing her mobility and her voice. Laurence noticed that she bloomed because “all of a sudden she was included in something that had been her identity in the past.” Because she and the three other women on stage were clearly having so much fun, other residents wanted to join in the merriment. Thus, Musical Chairs was born. Participating in the group together helps residents move their attention off their mortality, and makes them more aware that they’re part of a community, Laurence says. At a recent Tuesday morning session, the group decided to rename themselves the Frolicking Fossils!
Before he got “swept away” by dance, Laurence says, he’d wanted to be a Catholic priest or spiritual leader/educator. In his ordination talk he said “I came to Chime to find a box with the name of a Divine Being and all the detailed information about that Being in it. It would answer my questions about the mysterious nature of God, and religions, and spiritual practices.” He found at ChIME, however, that the training is as out-of-the-box as he is.
Does dancing belong in a long-term care facility? Absolutely! Do crystal singing bowls belong in a traditional New England country church? You betcha. Rev. Laurence often serves as guest minister at the North Saco Congregational Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Saco Biddeford. Parishioners are treated to scripture readings as well as “dance, sacred gesture and learning diverse ways to pray and make prayer,” including crystal bowl meditations. Creativity and spirituality, Laurence now knows, absolutely belong together. “I love having the variety of options to express my Interfaith spirituality and I thank ChIME for these continuing moments,” Laurence says. “Belonging, invitation, and ways to pray: that’s what I bring with me wherever I go.”
Now that he’s been teaching dance in two long-term care facilities for many years, residents often ask Laurence to visit them—in their rooms—for spiritual companionship, scripture reading, prayer, or just a friendly chat. “What is important to me, as an Interfaith Minister,” says Laurence, “is to foster those desiring to learn about their own Spiritual Nature in their own language. Learning and conversing in one's own language can be all that is needed to carry on.”
At the Barron Center, Rev. Miller has performed a very moving tiny wedding on short notice, for someone who didn’t expect to live long enough to attend her daughter’s formal marriage ceremony. He also loves to work with both gay and straight couples to plan an elaborate wedding that’s just right for them. On his website, laurencemillermaine.com, Laurence tells couples that “Your ceremony can … weave spiritual paths, family traditions, and cultural traditions into a beautiful tapestry for you to remember…Experienced in meditation and energy work, ceremony and ritual, I can help you express your exact spiritual wants and desires.”
The invitation that Laurence makes to couples is the same one that ChIME made to him all those years ago. Laurence says, “Chime met me where I was. And we were encouraged in our chaplaincy studies to meet folks where they are. I was able to refine and redefine my understanding of that Universal Life Force that some call God. I learned that the Divine is too big to be put in a box. And, this Blessed Concept is too expressive in all of Its mysterious personalities to have just one name. Chime modeled this for me.”
Recently Laurence offered a workshop at ChIME’s first Business and Spirituality conference. The Spirit of Your Gifts with Rev. Laurence Miller was popular with ChIME students because it promised to address making what you love work—developing a business, nonprofit or chaplaincy that is informed by Spirit and your particular gifts. Laurence glows as he describes watching ChIME students light up in response to these questions: What do I have? Instead of just thinking of traditional chaplaincy roles, can I take what is uniquely mine and make it something new, infused with Spirit, a new combination of ingredients, a new recipe in loving service? He says:
To me, Chime is a big loom, weaving all of the threads of my life into one tapestry. All of the threads belong, regardless of their weight or strength, fault or truth, past judgments or current emotion. The tapestry’s threads are my family, friends, spirit, life’s past journeys and of course the Divine. When we are at a loss for words to speak of the Divine, we can still feel the essence of all that is good in love and blessings. Chime has helped me hear this wordless presence.
“Wordless presence” is a great way to describe Rev. Miller in action. At the Barron Center recently, when Musical Chairs ended, the music didn’t stop. “He makes an amazing rapport so easily,” says current Activities Director Sarah Nute. “He just jumps in where he’s needed.” As the room slowly emptied of wheelchairs and a rolling assisted bed, Laurence was behind more than one chair, helping residents move towards lunch, joking with one, lightly tapping the shoulder of another. A woman in a motorized chair waited patiently for a one-on-one chat with the Chaplain of Joy.