When it comes to God you can always expect the unexpected. For Sister Doreen McGuff, a young impressionable self-proclaimed dreamer, the 60s was a pivotal decade for her. “I had just started university in 1960 in Vancouver,” says Sister Doreen. “It was the eve of hippies, and you were either high on LSD or Jesus Christ. But we all had a dream of peace and love.”
Sister Doreen remembers the decade fondly, though the political landscape was highly charged. She had boyfriends and was planning on becoming a teacher – but God intervened in the most unexpected way. “My dream was sparked when someone with beautiful wavy hair, incredible good looks, a flashy silver outfit and an electric guitar with swaying hips and a low voice began to sing.”
Interestingly enough, the King of Rock and Roll inspired Sister Doreen to follow the King of Kings, and she can pinpoint the exact instance. One may assume she was influenced by one of Elvis’ famous gospel songs. But it was a mainstream anthem that woke up Sister’s soul – Love me Tender. “I was especially touched by the words: love me tender love me sweet, never let me go, you have made my life complete and I love you so. I thought if only I – we – could love each other that tenderly, that tenaciously, imagine what we could do.”
Sister Doreen would have screamed along with the teeny boppers in the stands at Elvis’ concerts – she has every record. Her fandom for Elvis apparent, but for her, Elvis’ influence was so much more than sex appeal and a powerful voice. “I really feel Elvis was a great theologian,” says Sister Doreen. “This is what really turned me to my vocation. I realized listening to Elvis’ music that God walks with me all the time and that God’s love is more than we can ask or hope for. God himself is a hound dog in a loving way, always calling, sharing, leading and prodding.”
Coming to the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto, Ontario in 1965 for a vacation, Sister Doreen knew by the second day she wasn’t going to be a teacher. She was going to stay. She had found her home.
Life continued, and threw her twists and turns. One of her biggest obstacles came in 1999 when she suffered a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery. It took her a full year to recover and she thought she would never escape “that grey place.” “I could only walk 100 meters in the beginning.” As she walked she would quietly sing Love Me Tender. It became her mantra. Slowly her distance and speed increased, and as it did she had an epiphany – God is beside us through our toughest times and walks at our pace, whatever that pace may be.
She lovingly refers to the Lord as “her three-mile an hour God.” “Some days, years, or circumstances in life lead you to feel very much like you are in the wilderness,” recalls Sister. “And you are never there just once, you always go back. We all experience hard times, Elvis’ life was the same. We do things we wish we hadn’t.”
In 2006, pondering scripture, Sister had a thought that inspired an Elvis workshop; tying together the music and words that dramatically converted her soul. She was getting frustrated over the things the church was fighting over and the list seemed endless. She pondered what other generations would think when they looked at hers. She felt hope needed to be rekindled. So she created and ran the workshop with much success, and in the years following was nudged to do it again, but it never felt right.
Until one day, when someone “with beautiful wavy hair, incredible good looks, and a low voice began to sing.” Reverend Matthew Martin was at the Sisterhood as a postulant working through his assessments to become a priest. Everyone at the convent knew how much Sister Doreen loved Elvis and Rev. Matt just happened to be an Elvis tribute artist. Something he had been doing since the tender age of six. When someone told Rev. Matt about Sister’s affinity for the “King” he came into the convent dining room and sang Love Me Tender. And that clinched it! It still took several years, but once again the workshop came alive. This time much to Sister’s satisfaction, she had Rev. Matt in person playing Elvis rather than playing videos.
Similar to Elvis, Rev. Matt had his own struggles and was able to reflect on his past during the full day workshop. During his sermon he brought the congregation to tears as he shared his own personal story of addiction to alcohol. Rev. Matt reflected on how Elvis has worked in his life and told the story of how he was asked to do the production Blue Suede Shoes. The complication was he was in seminary. “Thanks to the Dean’s wisdom, who allowed me to do the show I truly discovered I didn’t want to entertain for a living,” said Rev. Matt. “I knew my call was to serve the church.”
Rev. Matt has found many ways to incorporate Elvis music into ministry, and it has opened many doors. “I’ve sang Love Me Tender in hospitals and retirement homes. I have been blessed with grace-given moments. I see the joy on people’s faces who are in long-term care or palliative care. It’s a powerful thing. It’s really about using our gifts for good and remaining who we are.”
Throughout the workshop, which was laced with poignant reflections and both spiritual and mainstream Elvis songs, there was plenty of toe-tapping and hand clapping. One participant fulfilled Sister Doreen’s vision for the day of a “fun and holy time,” by announcing aloud, “I’m having a good time God!”
There were also peaceful moments as people walked the labyrinth or visited the convent’s outdoor Stations of the Cross. One participant said the more she heard Rev. Matt sing, the more she found the songs moving. Many times during the event one could look across the intimate audience and see people’s eyes closed as they listened intently to the powerful words they maybe didn’t recognize in Elvis’ work before now.
The workshop’s focus was on life and how it can be unraveled and rewoven, and how faith and love can heal a broken world. “It is the context for transformation,” said Sister Doreen. “To live out our call to love one another and accept God’s delight and pleasure in us, to accept that we are loved wildly and completely, as a whole package, with all our faults and imperfections. God is human and hides in the world in you and me. This workshop is to bring people home to the heart of God where we belong, knowing that God will always love us tenderly and never let us go.”
By Amanda Jackman