A slow, solemn tolling of bells set a somber funerary mood to the beginning of Sunday-morning worship service at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond on Blanton Avenue.
But the final peal of the bell was drowned out by irreverent, funky bass line of Dr. John's “In the Right Place,” bringing the feel of a New Orleans-style funeral march to what was actually a sendoff for the church's popular assistant minister, the Rev. Alane Cameron-Miles.
At the head of the processionary conga line wiggling its way to the front of the church, the very much alive and kicking Cameron-Miles was all smiles in a festive fuchsia dress.
What better way to celebrate the end of a popular ministry for a woman so many Richmonders have turned to in times of communal grief?
Welcoming congregants after the last bass thump faded, even the church's senior minister, the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, looked dazed: “I'm happy to say, if this is your first time here, God help you!”
The celebration was classic Cameron-Miles, complete with frequent rock or funk interludes provided by Richmond music royalty, dancing, and the requisite tears that come easily to a woman whose abilities as a grief counselor became legendary to Richmond after the January 2006 quadruple murder of the Harvey family.
There were musical allusions to that tragedy, with local musicians Coby Batty and Steve McCarthy — both musical contemporaries of Bryan Harvey — providing a self-penned sweet, radio-ready pop tune written for Miles.
It was a day that came too soon for Cameron-Miles and for many church members. Cameron-Miles sparked controversy among some church members last year over comments she made in Style Weekly's “Top 40 Under 40” issue, in which she was named among the city's young up-and-comers. (She had said the title of her as-yet-unpenned autobiography would be “Life, Death, Love and Whiskey.”)
Cameron-Miles paddled on after the storm, but eventually decided in the spring to call it quits. She says she's uncertain where the future leads, but gave her fans a strong bit of advice in her final parting.
“The only lesson I'd like to leave you with is to find out who you are and once you find that out, you find people to help you be you,” she told parishioners between deep dance grooves. “I love you.”