A Dancing Priest
I have to be honest... it was very hard to think of a less literal title for this blog post, but sometimes you just have to say it like it is!
This past week I met up with Father Robert VerEecke from St. Francis Xavier Church in Union Square, NY. We were connected by a beloved yoga friend and fellow follower of the teachings of Christ, Lizzie. In January, Lizzie invited me to speak at the Feminism - Faith rally that she organized in solidarity with the Woman's March this past year. We had an amazing and powerful time calling on women from all faiths and backgrounds to speak to how religion should be moving into the future. I was honored to be in such acclaimed company! Afterwards she suggested that I meet her pastor who just happened to be a dancer and choreographer. Of course I jumped at the opportunity to have a conversation with him and see how our stories may intersect.
Lately I have been very drawn to the mystic side of Christianity. Growing up in the church, I had a solid foundation of the gospel, but there were a lot of places where I didn't feel plugged in. It didn't feel like a natural connection with God and at times even forced. I am searching for the unforced rhythms of grace. An embodied experience with God. A reciprocity with God that is as easy as breathing. I have spent the past year following the daily meditations of Franciscan monk, Fr. Richard Rohr after a dear friend hooked me on his writings. He founded the Center for Action and Contemplation and speaks of the experience of being "God breathed". He calls it The Divine Dance.
"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” - Mathew 11:28-30
My meeting with Pastor Bob (as he would rather go by) was months in the making. After having to continuously cancel due to crazy weather, travel, conflicts with school pick up and so forth we were able to meet this past week. With no real agenda, neither one of us were worried and knew that we would connect when the time was right.
Our plan was to meet after my weekly ballet class at Gibney Dance in the same area as the church. This class begins with meditation and mind body awareness followed by a barre and full bodied movement across the floor. Needless to say, it is me in a class!
I walked to the church afterwards on a gorgeous spring day in the city. I entered the upper offices of the 150 year old church to find Ps. Bob painting the walls of the library. Upon meeting him I felt as though he looked like a slender, gentle Jerome Robbins. A dancer’s physique which commanded the space that he inhabited, but with a sense of true gracefulness.
As we sat down in his office overlooking 14th street, he invited me to tell my story. This is something that I have been working on perfecting (or at least managing without rambling or downplaying) for quite some time now. Trying my best to put my facilitator's hat on and ensure equitably time in conversation, I was determined to keep it concise and clear.
Starting my journey in Toronto, growing up singing and dancing in church to my competitive dance days. Training in Limon to my love of Graham at the Ailey School. From there, landing in the company of The Lion King at 19 years old and meeting my musician husband. A decade long career on Broadway and having a baby after performing until 8 1/2 months on Broadway lead me to total burn out! This ignited my big ol' transition from being one of the token black girl on Broadway to a presence in the world of systems change, movement and yoga. We connected over our love of dancers being actors and storytellers first. I was interested to see how our journeys through dance would weave together. Now it was his turn to share...
He spoke about him starting seminary at the age of 19 and falling in love with dance later in life. His 40+ years as a choreographer and founding his own company The Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble. He showed me some of his proudest works and spoke of dancers who had been loyal and danced for him for over 30 years! For him, being a dancer and a pastor were synonymous with each other. One informed the other and the reciprocity was evident in how passionately he spoke about them both.
It was interesting how I was able to see men in power in the church differently that day. The majority of my experiences of pastors where white, heterosexual men who lead their congregations with a wise and knowing demeanor. All lovely men, but in pastor Bob I saw a softer side. He was able to share with me his questions of God about why he had to leave his beloved congregation in Boston and come to NYC (a very intimidating town as an artist). He showed a more vulnerable side and one that begged for expression and emotion beyond words.
We built upon our stories by speaking about the importance to experience God in the body. After all isn't Christianity built on the principles of incarnation? If we aren't living fully in the body and live solely in the head, aren't we missing out on the fundamental experience of God?
I spoke about my need to make space in my life to heal my body so that the spirit could freely express itself through me. Now I can say that I have entered the flow. It's doesn't mean that it's easy, but it does mean that I feel as if I am in constant communion with the divine. Like water, my life shape shifts and moves in many directions, but the more space I allow to be created, the more my cup expands and the more the spirit has room to MOVE!
After our conversation, Pastor Bob asked me if it was alright to show me his sacred space. Of course I agreed! We walked to the back of the sanctuary to a rickety, dark staircase very reminiscent of the phantom of the opera. It winded all the way to the balcony where behind the pews was a small platform with two standing mirrors and an open window blowing the most refreshing breeze.
"This is where I do my barre and meditate every day." said Pastor Bob humbly. It was sacred indeed. I asked him if he could do a bit of movement for me. "Sure!" he said as a huge smile broke across his face. An open invitation to worship, he dove right in. All I could think of was "who has days/ meetings like this?" It felt very special. Then I remembered how I made an agreement with the universe that wherever she lead, I would follow. It is a movement of the most fulfilling kind.
As we hugged goodbye, I felt a sense of gratitude hard to explain with words. Instead of trying, we decided to leave it on the dance floor.