Karen Miller, a beloved wife, mom, educator, and mentor to the hearts of many, passed away on December 9, 2022, from cancer.
Born Karen Sue Smathers in 1952 in Knoxville, TN, Karen sought spiritual solace in the woods and meadows from an early age, including hikes with her dad in the Smoky Mountains.
After graduating as a registered nurse from the University of Tennessee, Karen packed her bicycle at age 21 onto a Hawaii-bound plane to begin her life of self-discovery – first serving in a Honolulu hospital.
After a year in Hawaii, Karen returned to the mainland living successively in New York City, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz, CA, where she specialized as a labor and delivery nurse.
In Santa Cruz, her lifelong multi-faith inquiry took root as she discovered Sufism from the works of the mystical poet Rumi which she studied with English author/healer Reshad Feild. At this time, she met her husband, Bruce Miller, a writer/media creator living in Los Angeles. Together, they returned to Los Angeles to start a family with the birth of a son, Nathaniel, in 1985.
Seeking a more family-friendly environment to raise a family, Karen and Bruce moved to a 120-year-old home in Decatur, GA. This stately-columned home became a hub of community as Karen and Bruce staged workshops, seminars, dinner parties, and events from their shared desire to nurture heartfelt connection among a diverse network of friends and seekers.
Eleven years after the birth of their first son, Jacob came into the world in 1996 as an unexpected blessing. When Jacob came of school age, Karen followed her intuition to reinvent herself – from a nurse to a chaplain. She entered Columbia Theological Seminary, where she earned a late-in-life Master of Divinity degree and became a Presbyterian minister. While studying Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), Karen felt an affinity to use her burgeoning pastoral skills to serve the homeless population. She took additional CPE residencies, including at Spiritual Health at Emory Healthcare, where she was invited into the rigorous process of becoming a CPE educator.
In December 2013, Karen received her CPE Educator Certification from the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. At the end of that month, she was stricken with a brain tumor that required aggressive treatment and surgery. This setback did not deter Karen from starting her dream career as the Director of CPE at the Training and Counseling Center at St. Luke’s two weeks after brain surgery and while undergoing treatment. Karen was given a seven-month prognosis but lived a vital life for the next nine years.
Karen practiced daily yoga and swam across her cabin’s small lake every day in the summer. She availed herself of supportive health modalities and worked with San Francisco and Chicago specialists. At the suggestion of her California doctor, Karen and Bruce flew to Italy in 2015 to meet Dr. Francesco Recchia – a trip that unfolded into a magical second honeymoon.
Karen never stopped in her creative quest to find new ways to help students use their clinical encounters with homelessness to explore the deeper regions of self. She used cultural collages, genograms, retreats, improv theater, and group processes to catalyze reflective work and personal change.
Karen also drew from her multi-faith interest to recruit students beyond the confines of Christianity, including Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims who took her CPE course.
Karen’s multi-faith interest was born from her deep self-inquiry. Throughout her life, Karen drew from Sufi practices, her Christian faith, Qigong, yoga, Advaita meditation, the Ridhwan School, and her husband’s Judaism. Karen and Bruce’s evocative Passover seders became the stuff of legend.
While Karen’s resume is rich, she is remembered for her palpable kindness and embracing love. Even while she was suffering, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues received a deep tenderness to their needs and a liberating permission to be themselves.
Karen is survived by her husband Bruce, sons Nathaniel and Jacob, and daughter-in-law Hillary. Siblings include Deborah Doss and Tom Smathers in Tennessee and Emily Hendrickson in North Carolina.
Karen asked for her remains to return to the earth in a sustainable manner. She will be given a green burial at the Honey Creek Meadows natural burial site in Conyers, GA on December 16, 2022.