MARY LEE TALBOT – STAFF WRITER
In her new book, On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear, the Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper pondered how to minister to people with dementia who could no longer get to the church building after working for seven years in a continuing care home with people with dementia.
What could an institution like the church do differently to keep these people active in the church community? Since her book was published, she has had almost 18 months to ponder how to build that bridge.
She led an in-church gathering as part of her ministry with older adults at the Riverside Church in New York City before COVID-19 and the accompanying restrictions.
“I have been impressed by Zoom,” she said. “People who struggled to get to the church were at the Zoom meeting faithfully. One person had her granddaughter help her get online. I am contemplating how we continue Zoom as we come back to the church in person.”
Harper will be the chaplain at Chautauqua for Week Eight and will preach at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday worship and sermon in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title is “The Gift of Wisdom.”
She will also preach at the 9 a.m. Monday through Friday worship services in the Amp.
Her sermon titles include “The Wisdom in Creating and Creation,” “Feasting at Wisdom’s Table,” “The Challenge of Understanding,” “Making the Most of Time” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”
The guards at Azkaban Prison in the Harry Potter series are called “dementors” and suck the soul out of people.
“That is very reflective of our culture,” Harper said. “I hear that a lot when working with people with dementia. It is in our language; we call dementia the death that kills twice, first the mind and then the body. But that is a very dualistic view.”
She continued, “This dualistic view leaves us with a dehumanizing framework where people suffer abuse and neglect, lose friends and suffer loneliness at high rates. Whose soul is sucked away? Is it the people with dementia, or the broader culture that is not robust enough to allow their participation?”
Harper will bring some of her experiences to her sermons for Week Eight. Her sermons will explore the concept of wisdom from the lectionary readings assigned for this week.
“We tend to think of someone with wisdom as a singular genius or a guru on a mountaintop,” she said. “I think wise people live with compassion, in just relationship with others and the creation and confront their own assumptions.”
Harper’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Kenyon Review, Catapult, HuffPost, North American Review, CALYX, the Journal of Religion and Abuse, and elsewhere. She received the New Delta Review Nonfiction Prize in 2013 and the Orison Anthology’s 2017 Nonfiction Award. She was named runner up for the Torch Prize in 2016.
Her book On Vanishing is a nonfiction exploration of the dimensions of spirituality, social justice and dementia and the week’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle pick.
Harper received a Barbara Deming Fund Grant for Women Writers for the project.
An ordained Baptist minister, Harper completed her master of divinity degree at Wake Forest University and completed her chaplaincy residency at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. She served as the nursing home chaplain at a retirement community in New Jersey for seven years.
She is currently the Minister of Older Adults at The Riverside Church in the City of New York.