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Sacred Service with Reverend Deborah L. Johnson

Reverend Deborah L Johnson (Rev D) shares the story of her remarkable call to ministry as a teenager and how she got there on her own time. Since then, she’s done extensive hospice work through her omnifaith outreach ministry: Inner Light Ministries. Rev D also shares the very personal experience of her mother’s passing one year ago at the age of 96.





Transcript:

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Hi. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode, we explore death, dying, and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic.

Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page.

My guest today is Rev. Deborah L. Johnson, known to many as Rev. D. She's the founding minister and president of Inner Light Ministries, an omni-faith outreach ministry that she started over 20 years ago. She's also the author of two books, The Sacred Yes and Your Deepest Intent. I'm so looking forward to talking to Rev. D. about her spiritual perspective on death and about her ministry, especially her extensive hospice experience.

It's such a pleasure to meet you.

Deborah L. Johnson:

It's such a pleasure to meet you.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I'd love to know how you became a minister.

Deborah L. Johnson:

I had gotten the call to ministry very early at the age of 15, and it was rather traumatic particularly from the standpoint that I was raised as a very fundamentalist evangelical, charismatic Pentecostal and quite gay. I'm 15 years old. I'm in my senior year in high school. It is the youth convocation event for the denomination that I grew up in, which is called the Church of God in Christ, which is the largest Black denomination in the world.

The amount of arguing and daily fighting that was going on at my home about me being gay was just unbearable. My mother was sure that I was going to go to hell and that God was going to hold her responsible for me being gay because I was a minor, and she wasn't going to hell. I just was so frustrated, and they had what they call altar calls where, if you want prayer, you just go up. It was an altar call, and some force, something, hit me on my chest and up underneath my knees simultaneously and, bam, I am on the floor face up, and I am speaking a language. I still don't know what it was or what I was saying, but I was speaking in tongues, and my mother was standing right there.

My next memory was being in the restaurant at the hotel and saying to her, "I'm supposed to be a minister." Everybody thought that this was the sign that God was going to turn me straight, and it was like, well, you're going to have to come up with another plan for my life because that one's not going to work. I made this promise that by the time that I turned 40 that I would do something about it. In the interim, I studied other things and I got into the New Thought Movement, became more of a metaphysician, became a lay minister and, finally, went finished ministerial school and, literally, the day before I turned 40, I started the vision core for the ministry that I've now had for 27 years called Inner Light.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Can you define what omni faith is?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yes. Omni faith is actually a word that was coined by some of my ministerial students. Essentially, it is meant to mean omni, which is sort of above and beyond any particular kind of faith or tradition, but about the essence and the substance of faith itself because not all faith comes out of what we call traditional religions.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I'm excited to talk to you about Peaceful Exit because we've really approached death from a lot of angles. You believe it's a sacred time like I do, and I'm curious about what formed your views of death.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Well, my views of death have evolved through the years. I would say they first probably started getting informed by actually watching people and witnessing people making their transitions.

I come from a pretty large extended family. I mean, literally, I've watched three whole generations leave, the last of which was my mom a year ago at 96, was the last of her generation. I'd say those were probably my earliest, and then, as I became a lay minister and got into spiritual counseling and was actually involved more in the process of people who were at end of life, going to hospitals, working with them in hospice with their families, even presiding over their ceremonies or whatnot afterwards, I started getting up close and personal with the actual journey of the individuals in process, which I have been doing for decades now. My ministry has a very close working relationship with the local hospitals and the local hospice organizations.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You have all this experience being with people at the very end of their life, and then your mom passes away a year ago at age 96. You can have all this experience, but it's still very personal when it's your own mom. How was that for you?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yes. My mom passed away in the family home. I'm very pleased that she was able to do that. They lived there since I was six months old. She was fortunate enough to have caregivers who were there with her and family members. During the last days of her life, she withered I guess is what I would call it. She wasn't sick. She wasn't ailing from anything, but just slowly, but surely, the system started to shut down.

One of the things that I find really remarkable about her journey was how much time she spent courting what I call the other side for at least two years, maybe even more than that. During her last, I guess, week, two weeks or so of that, that really, really intensified. Sometimes it got comical to me in terms of her drawing me into those conversations and the discussions that we were having about them, but she managed to hang in there like nothing I have ever seen for about five or six days with no food, no water.

For me, perhaps, the most traumatic part was watching her those last 10 hours or so with the laborious breath and making that hard decision to not give her the oxygen that was right there because she was so ready to go. She was done with still being here. Not everybody can do that. My brother and I both agree that he's very glad that I was the one at those moments, but that's sacred time.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

That is sacred time. Did you sing?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yes. One thing that I always appreciated with her is that, even when she was not particularly respondent to people, not that she didn't hear, she just like didn't want to care to talk, but whenever there was music like the hymns, she would always sing along. That used to be part of my time with her is I would just do a medley, particularly the choruses that are easy to do just one after another after another, and she never skipped a beat. Even if she was just mouthing it, because she didn't have enough breath to sing, she knew all of her favorite church hymns.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

She was singing right till the end?

Deborah L. Johnson:

She was singing them right until the end. Yes.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Awesome. Let's talk about hospice. What role do you play in terms of how you have shown up in that world?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Well, on several different fronts, formally as a ministry, we have pastoral care program, and this thing that I'm talking about now like singing is one of the things my ministry would do. We would get called in, and we would send teams of people to convalescent homes or to hospitals or to private residences, and they would sing. They're very well-trained in looking at the breath rhythms and what kinds of chords and what sort of melodies and sounds would be the most soothing.

Helping to usher people to the other side through singing is one way. The other thing that I do with hospice is I really work with them in terms of getting through to the patient if there's any resistances or if they need to talk things over, work things through, resolve things with folks, because that can sometimes be an issue.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You mean relational?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yes. Yes. A lot of times, people don't think of it this way, but sometimes the biggest problems at hospices isn't with the patient at all, but it's with their family and all of the drama and the chaos and the confusion and whatever, the anger, the resentment, the grief-

Sarah Cavanaugh:

All of it.

Deborah L. Johnson:

... all of these things that people don't know how to process and handle, so sometimes I play referee and interference, babysit their relatives sometimes so that they can do their job, similarly sometimes with the hospitals.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Similar to a death midwife almost?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yes.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You're there with the family. You're there with the patient. You're kind of a liaison between the hospice and the patient, if you will. Is that right?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yes. Yes, and if it happens to be like at that last moment or those last moments, I'm there. I'm in prayer, I'm in vigil, I'm holding their hands, I'm talking to them, whatever it's going to take to help them make that transition. I'm also the first one that gets called if I'm not actually there at the moment of the last breath. I come before the morticians get there. I'm there with the family or whomever and the remains or the body with whatever sort of closure, rituals, ceremony, whatever it is that we have to do, because that's a pretty tough thing to watch your loved one go out in a body bag. Some people adorn the body and wash it and cleanse it and have a wake and have people over, and they chat and tell stories and eat food and all of the rest of that. It goes the whole gamut in terms of how I might be involved.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Is there any specific story that has stuck with you?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Well, what I can say is that, if you're willing to give up the idea of people being dead, you can still have the most extraordinary relationship with them, that the last breath is not the end. I can't say exactly what happens or how, but people get wiser. They get smarter. They see things that they couldn't see before, and a lot of issues get more resolved on the other side.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You said something about people come to sing and they're very intentional about the rhythm. Is it the rhythm of the dying person's breathing that you're mimicking? What is it about the music that you're intentional about when you are hospicing someone who's transitioning?

Deborah L. Johnson:

If you think of... They almost look like discs or saucers, these kinds of drums you can play with your fingers or mallets.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yes, I know what you're talking about.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yes, and each of them is in their own key and their own tone or like a singing bowl. Every singing bowl is tuned to a certain level that hits certain chakra frequencies. It literally is calibrating so that you are not only synchronizing with the person, but you're also helping to bring in a more harmonic vibration. They could be very agitated, for example, or in a lot of deep pain. It's bringing them to certain-

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Bringing the sound. Yeah.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yes. Yes. Yes. The way that I would describe it, it would be like a lullaby, how we do with babies. You know when to sing the upbeat lullaby and you know when to sing the nice, slow, please...

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Please go to sleep.

Deborah L. Johnson:

... go-to-sleep lullaby. Yeah, that's an example that I could give that might resonate with people.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

How did you come about this knowledge of music and the way that you're tending to the dying with sound? Are you a musician or is that something that came with your ministry?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Well, I am musically inclined. I do write music, and I'm a lyricist. My ex-wife and I started the church together, and she and I wrote a lot of music together. She was over the music ministry and the sacred passage ministry, which was the combination between the music and my practitioners, my lay minister, but I would probably credit someone else on my staff, Valerie Hayes, for being the one to really teach me the most about this. She was the person who was head of our ministry of prayer and head of the sacred passages who helped to train a lot of us on this. She helped me get to the point of conscious recognition, a lot of it I had been intuiting myself, but what she helped me grasp was the musicality of it all and not just the message.

With my mom, it was of the message of the music as well, the hymns, their stories, what it was that they were saying, that the lyrics were really important, whereas the lyrics were very, very minimal in most of these songs, very, very minimal, and it was more the harmonies and the melodies that were the activating agent.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

There's ritual in music, too, don't you think?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Oh, yeah.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

When your mother would hear a familiar hymn, that would take her back years, maybe generations.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Oh, there's no question.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

What are some concrete tips or advice you would give someone who's caring for the dying given your story about all the drama that can be around that person's family and everything?

Deborah L. Johnson:

There are a few. One, I would say be sure to take care of yourself. It's like put your own mask on first.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah, great advice.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Make sure that you're eating and sleeping and getting some breaks, getting some air, laughing, still having some fun because it can be a very, very grueling process. Two, don't make it about you. Be present with that person and don't put all of your grief... You have the rest of your life to grieve, but in that moment, it's about them.

Third, if they want to talk about it, let them talk about it. It is not morbid, the, "Oh, no, don't say that. Don't talk about that. Mommy, you're going to be here forever." No. Just listen. Just be present. Think about it. This is a once in a lifetime, at least once in an incarnation experience. You don't know what they're going through. Don't make them have to go through it alone. Be very, very present with it.

The last thing that I would say is, whatever unfinished business you have in your heart, find a way to clean it up without dumping on them so that you don't get stuck with a whole bunch of emotions and, last but not least, celebrate the mystery of this. This is the cycles of life, whatever anger or frustration or disappointment. We're all going to go sometime, illness, injury. We're all out of here at some time, so it's no failure to die. We may not like all the circumstances and the conditions, but when it's your time, it's your time. Don't make people feel bad because it's their time.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

You're talking about acceptance.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Exactly. Reading about grief would help, studying it and learning the different stages of grief and how to manage yourself through those, but those are my best tips.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I think what probably catches people most off guard is the stage of anger when someone is transitioning that that's part of those stages of grief, but it's one part. It's not the whole transition, but I think sometimes, especially with dementia, anger comes up. It's hard on the family members to sit with that and be okay with that. What you're saying is just listen. It's not personal.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Right, and any party can be angry.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

True.

Deborah L. Johnson:

The one passing away gets angry sometimes. The people who are caring for them can get angry. The sense of frustration and helplessness and anger is just a part of grief. It's just a stage of grief, so just be with it, all of it, without any judgment.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

All of it. You used the word eternality. What does it mean to you?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Eternality is the ongoingness of something, where it does not stop. It goes on and on. I do believe with all of my heart that we are incarnations, carne, flesh form, that there is something that's in the flesh form. You can call it a soul. You can call it a spirit. You can call it whatever you want to call it. I don't care, but whatever that thing is, it is transcendent of and independent of the body so that, when the body decays and the body goes, that life force essence doesn't go with it. It continues on, and I believe that with all of my heart.

If you've ever been there at that very last breath, it is amazing how you can actually feel sometimes. It feels like a whoosh, like a gust of wind or something just blew through the room, and then, when you look at the body, you realize at that moment that's just a body and they're not in that anymore. You are so clear. You may not know where they are, but you know they're not there.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

I love the distinction of that, that there's something other than the body. For those of us who have felt that whoosh, it's very real. It's very visceral. Yeah.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Oh, yeah, you're sad and you're crying, and then all of a sudden like whoa.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Yeah, and there's a different kind of crying with grief. It's like these large tears that leap out of your eyes. I have never felt that before my mother died.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Yeah, and there's a wailing kind of cry that can happen that's really deep, deep down in the chest. I always know particularly in a hospital if somebody's just passed when I hear that particular sound.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Just to jump back for a second to eternality, you connect that idea with cultural and social systems. Is that where your activism comes in?

Deborah L. Johnson:

Well, I really do believe that this soul's essence of ours is timeless, and I don't think it has a sociodemographic profile. I don't think it has a gender or a race or an age or religion or any of that stuff. I think the bodies that we incarnate, our little personalities, sort of have those things, but that the soul essence is equal. I don't think there's any hierarchy. I don't think one is any more important than the other.

When we take on these incarnations, we get into the false belief that it's something other than that, that some people are valued more than other people or certain people are just meant for this kind of life or that kind of life. I just believe that contradicts the fundamental harmony of life. I'm really all about each person being able to optimize their maximum potential regardless of what their station in life may be or whatever kind of body they're inhabiting.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

What does a peaceful exit mean to you?

Deborah L. Johnson:

A peaceful exit to me is when... It has a couple of criteria for me. One is an acceptance where a person is not angry about the fact that they're making the transition. They're not trying to turn back the hands of... They're not trying to make it anything other than what it is. That's one. The other part is when they have a sense of resolve if there are people that they need to make amends with or hear from, unfinished business is what I will call it, where they take the time to handle that unfinished business on this plane. The third piece of it is when they have some kind of reconciled idea about what's next. They may not have to understand it all, but they're willing to go on that journey.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Do you feel like you meet those three criteria?

Deborah L. Johnson:

I honestly do believe that, yeah, I have really particularly the past five to 10 years been spending the time cleaning it up, the stuff on this level, for sure, and I truly believe that when it's your time, it's your time. There's not a bunch of sense of arguing about that that you're going to lose anyway.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Not going to fight it.

Deborah L. Johnson:

I feel resolved with what my perception is of what's next.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you. Thank you so much for your time.

Deborah L. Johnson:

Thank you as well.

Sarah Cavanaugh:

Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. You can learn more about this podcast and my online course at my website, peacefulexit.net. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This episode was produced by Larj Media. You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. More of his music can be found on Bandcamp.

As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit.



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