I'm walking a fine line in this post on embodied faith. It's about something I'm doing, but it's not about me, about the power of dance but not about my dancing. It's about the power of movement to set us free – set us free from the idea that we communicate with God only with words and from preconceived notions about who can serve.
Which sounds way too lofty for the kind of dancing I'm going to describe. Once a month, we wave ribbons on sticks in nowhere near perfect unison to accompany congregational singing. Most of us are not who you'd think of as dancers. Some of us you’d never see at the front of church, if not for this group.
M is a woman in her 30s who got me thinking about forming this group. On Palm Sunday, when we gathered at the back of the sanctuary with our fronds in the air, her face was so alive with joy at this chance to wave bits of greenery. Later I sat near her when another member danced. We laughed and sighed at the same parts and I knew she got dance. M has Down syndrome.
R is a woman in her 50s who boogies down every chance she gets, from Zumba at the Y to local band shows. She’s got a love of movement, a zest for life, and a gift for encouragement.
J, H, and Little J are siblings, 10, 7, and 2. H is a boy who mostly loves to whip the ribbons around. His big sister, J, was so inspired by our first dance that she made her own at-home ribbons on sticks. (I suspect H and J do at home what I wouldn't let them do at church -- sword-fight with the sticks.) The moment Little J saw the ribbons at home he grabbed one, waved it in front of him, and said a word that his parents interpreted as "church." Little J has also Down syndrome. He waves his ribbons with great zeal into impressive tangles to the side of the rest of the dancers.
L is 13. She's had 9 years of ballet and has the beautiful light hands and arms of a real ballerina. We’re a whole lot less formal than any other dance she’s done, but I’m glad she’s adding her gracefulness into the mix.
H.A. is my 12-year-old daughter who (like her mother before her) dances in the basement and takes classes that involve flexibility and movement, but not for more than two years running. She's got a security and freedom in performance that I only developed in my 20s.
M is an adult male who always wears some kind of sports jersey to church. He comes to every church event and always has a request during open mic prayer times, even though, due to a developmental disability, it's a struggle to make himself understood.
And then there's me, a woman in her mid-40s with a reasonable amount of training, who dances with complete abandon and spiritual conviction no matter how simple or complex the movement may be. It’s as worshipful to me to stand in the congregation and do children's worship actions to a song as it is for me to dance a challenging piece at the front of church. I've danced before audiences of hundreds within church and without, choreographed powerful group and solo numbers, embodied others' choreography, and led dance at three churches. After seven years of pastoral encouragement, I finally got to the point where I would just get up and dance to any song I had a dance to if we sang it during praise and worship, whether I was in my uniform or not. And if it was a dance I’d done with the kids, I’d get them up and we’d dance while the congregation sang. I've even "flowed" with an African-American dance comrade, which means that I got up with no pre-choreographed moves and let the Spirit guide what I did. At times, I’ve danced my private prayers. I am convinced that dance plays a similar role to that of the Holy Spirit, praying for us with groans that cannot be expressed in words (Rom. 8:26).
All that is to say that I've got serious dance cred. Even so, this group might be the best thing I've done.
Before anyone is tempted to think how nice it is that I’ve got a ministry to people with disabilities or a ministry to children, let me be clear: this group is not my ministry. It is our ministry. The purpose of this group is not to give the participants an activity. It’s a joyful and fun group, but I’m serious about our role.
WE are ministering TO the congregation.
So often in our churches, children and people with developmental disabilities are seen as "those who are ministered to," and not as "those who can minister." Dance and movement can bypass our varying verbal abilities, literacy levels, and intellectual capacities, and give a wide variety of people a way to serve.
This is a big deal for the dancers. They are contributing to the life of the church, up there in front, for everyone to see. But it's also a huge benefit to the congregation. Not only is our joy infectious, but they also get a little lesson about who can serve: everyone.
Even those who don’t necessarily have rhythm. Even those who have a hard time making themselves understood with words. And the fact that it's done with broad smiles and is accompanied by the crackle of bright and sparkly ribbons flying through the air makes it all the better.