Paws in the Pews

Father William Miller and his pooch Wili are looking forward to The Feast of St. Francis, when St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church open the doors to pets to receive a special blessing

Mark the date and tell your pet – The Feast of St. Francis falls on Friday, Oct. 4, this year.

That’s a big occasion for Father William Miller of St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church. St. Francis Day is a notable celebration at the church where people are invited to bring their animals to receive a blessing from Miller.

“St. Francis was known for his love for all creation,” says Miller, who has blessed dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, goats and even horses. “We open up the church to all the critters.”

And you need not be a church member, or even an Episcopalian, to participate. The church opens its doors to people of all faiths, including the Jewish community, which has made its home at St. Michael’s for decades.

“That’s just part of who we are; it’s part of our identity as a faith community to be open to other faiths,” says Miller, who penned a collection of stories about his life and the adventures he shared with a dog named Sam, The Gospel According to Sam. “Truth is large. God is bigger than all of our particular philosophies and understandings.”

Animals have brought spiritual lessons to him throughout the years, and he is thankful for the unconditional love they express.

“I really love my companionship with dogs,” says Miller, who has shared his life with three dogs, including Wili, who is the “official greeter of St. Michael’s.”

Spend a little time with Miller and it’s clear he not your average clergyman.

His next book, which was picked up by Simon and Schuster, is titled The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God. Beer, it turns out, is something he enjoys with friends after he loves paddleboarding on the Wailua River.

Miller, a Texas native, grew up in a religious family with more of a fundamentalist, restrictive-type bent, but eventually found his own path.

“But the core parts of it, the relational parts of it stayed with me, and that transcends any particular theology or philosophy,” he says.

He’s traveled extensively, and as he met people from a variety of backgrounds, his own theology grew more inclusive. He was ultimately drawn to the Episcopal Church, a branch of the Church of England. Because of the close ties between England and the ali’i, it was a Christian denomination that was invited to the Islands 150 years ago.

Miller enjoys the eclectic mix of people that continue to be drawn to St. Michael’s, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in November.

“I pinch myself daily. I can’t believe I live here – what a blessing and what a gift it is,” says Miller, who studied psychology and religion in college and earned a graduate degree from a seminary in Chicago as well as a graduate degree at an Episcopal seminary in Texas. “You really get a cross-section of the world just by opening up your door. You really don’t have to travel far, the world sort of comes to you here.”

Father Miller’s inclusionary theology also welcomes jazz musicians into the sanctuary.

“I love music,” he says one afternoon while his dog, Nawiliwili (Wili) Nelson, sits patiently at his side. “And jazz is one of the greatest gifts to the world,” he says.

So Miller holds a jazz festival every February at his Lihue church and regularly collaborates with musicians around the island.

The jazz festival originated seven years ago.

“We were really just thinking creatively about how we could build a bridge to the creative community and do something that honored our particular context and who we were,” he explains.

The festival has since grown to attract about 1,000 people from around the world. The weekend-long musical celebration has a variety of activities including two Sunday jazz Masses. An artist or a theme is selected and Mass is planned around that particular style of jazz or gospel music. The arrangements and compositions by artists such as John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington have been featured in the past.

“Sacred jazz is an undiscovered treasure,” says Miller. “It is a genre that translates. There are very few people who can’t tap their feet to a great spiritual or great gospel tune or a blues or jazz tune if it’s accessible.”

The first time Miller integrated jazz and church was in Austin, Texas – a multicultural city that attracts artists, musicians and writers. That musical event still is going strong. Miller also started a jazz festival at a church in downtown Houston.

In fact, he is considered the Johnny Appleseed of church jazz festivals.

“Part of the spiritual process is honoring the creative dimension,” he says. “That’s always been an important part of my faith and my own spirituality as it’s been lived out and practiced in the community.”

The Wailua resident even owns a music venue called Padres in the quirky, artistic town of Marfa, Texas.

“Music speaks volumes, far more than words,” says Randall Leonard, artistic director of Kaua’i Voices, conductor of the jazz choir Mass at St. Michael’s and longtime friend of Miller.

Leonard appreciates how Miller combines his messages with music.

“He understands that music gets into the souls of people,” he says.

Though Miller admits he doesn’t “play anything very well,” he does sing and dabbles in the guitar and ukulele.

Miller is grateful to be able to invite artists such as Leonard into his church, where The Joyful Noise Drummers – a taiko and African drumming group – also practices and performs.

Miller moved to the island seven years ago on Valentine’s Day.

“I really had no intentions of leaving the church I was at,” he says, regarding his church in Houston. “Things were going great; a lot of creative things happening and a lot of wonderful people.”

However, he had visited the North Shore of Oahu a couple of years prior to his move and remembers hearing surfers in the area discuss how much they loved where they lived, yet how they would rather be on Kaua’i. A month later, Miller attended a conference, and he connected with someone who had just moved to Kauai’ who mentioned that St. Michael’s soon would be looking for a new priest. They kept in touch, and two years later, Miller was invited to fill the role.

“Father Bill is a very genuine man,” says Leonard. “He has the kindest heart and his smile and his laugh are huge. You can’t help but be joyful around him. He is truly a great soul.

He inspires people and his joy is infectious.”

The church also recently opened its doors to a variety of other groups such as the YWCA and Kaua’i Hospice.

“We want to open ourselves up to anybody in the community doing good and showing love,” says Miller.

He also is proud of the church’s food pantry, Loaves and Fishes, which serves about 110 people every Wednesday.

“It really does take an army of volunteers and supporters to make that happen,” he says.

The priest also enjoys traveling and has especially liked visiting Tibet, Nepal, Transylvania, Romania and South America. This summer, he plans to travel to Ghana and South Africa.

Upon his return, Miller will continue to embrace music and the arts and is launching a capital campaign to renovate and enhance the church so that it can remain a hub for creativity and the artistically inclined.

“People are able to find a community here that embraces them regardless of who they are, where they come from or what their story is, and their gifts are welcome here and celebrated,” says Miller.

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