Keri’s Love Story (So far)

While the king’s horses and men may fail…Keri L. Miller can put Humpty Dumpty back together again…with Love like light…like a city on a hill…a lamp on its stand.

Give what you have, where you are…and wherever the Lord may take you.

“And so I go back home and think, ‘what can I do?  I’m a dentist, what do I have to give?’  And I give what I have.  I give them services and love as I am treating these families that nobody else wants to treat.”

Pause for a moment to look out upon the crowds.

Be still and just observe.

What stirs within?

There was a man who looked out and saw.  He seated himself on a nearby hill and drew those closest to him to share what stirred within.  He spoke of the blessedness of those poor in spirit, of those who mourn, of the meek, of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, of the merciful, of the pure in heart, of the peacemakers, and of the persecuted.  He spoke of their kingdom, of their comfort, of their inheritance, of their provision, and of their receipt of mercy, being enabled to see God and to be known as His children.

Then, he spoke of the manner by which the blessed in these multitudes would realize these things.  He spoke of salt, a preservative that in time may fail and be useless and discarded.   But light, he said, like a city on a hill, could not be hidden; like a lamp on a stand, it gives light to everyone in the house.  And so, in that same way, the multitudes will see the light in you and praise our Father in heaven.

A few years ago, two weary travelers plopped down next to each other in cozy airline seats returning from Haiti to the United States.  Both, on separate journeys, met for the first time.  Both, returning from service with the people of Haiti, were physically exhausted and emotionally wrung.  Yet one, though tired and worn, had a radiant shine about her, and the other inquired.  Somewhere in the blue skies over the Caribbean Sea, he heard a little of the story of the light shining in Keri L. Miller.

Keri is a children’s dentist in Auburn, Alabama.  For about 6 years, she treated mostly affluent children in an upscale practice.   It was a good living and fun, but she always knew there was something more she wanted to do. As she looked into her community, she saw need.  As she looked within herself, she saw she had something to give.

About 7 years ago, Keri split apart from her dental group and formed her own practice to treat children in poverty in her state.  She opened a new clinic called “The Lighthouse,” named after the scriptures in Matthew 5:14-16 about being a city on a hill and being a light of the world.

The “Lighthouse Children’s Dentistry” offers more than just dental care to children in need.  The staff works purposefully to build relationships with their patients and families and learn about what is going on in their personal lives.  Through that, they have found ways to minister to the children and their families in a broader context such as establishing a clothes closet in the office to provide clothes, shoes, and coats.  They also take personal time to pray with the children and their families and offer friendship and support.

Keri explained:  People often come into her office with much greater needs than just dental work. “They may come in with a tooth problem, but we pray with them, we encourage them…we have a little girl right now with brain cancer who we support and pray with.”  Another example involves a woman who had a toddler and was pregnant again.  The woman knew she could not care and provide for the new baby and was struggling with whether she should give the baby up for adoption or consider other alternatives.  One of Keri’s staff, who had adopted children, came alongside the woman with encouragement to continue with the pregnancy and offer the baby for adoption.  The woman cried as she had felt led to give the baby up for adoption but none of her friends or family had supported her thinking.  That day, her faith was strengthened with the support she needed to go forward with that difficult decision.

Like those stories, there are many types of family situations that come through the office.  It is very rewarding for Keri and her staff to help connect patients and their families with others who can help them or sometimes guide them to help themselves.  Her staff loves on them and treats them, as they do all their patients, with the same quality care regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Keri said her model stems from looking at God’s word and listening to what Jesus actually said.  “We need to minister to those who cannot help themselves, the downtrodden.   Going to Haiti perpetuated that because you see the richness the people have in their lives, and they don’t have anything, but they have God.  And so I go back home and think, ‘what can I do?  I’m a dentist, what do I have to give?’  And I give what I have.  I give them services and love as I am treating these families that nobody else wants to treat. I think it works hand in hand. Giving what you receive, and being missional…missional living right where you are.”

Keri is a pediatric specialist and treats children, trauma, and special needs cases.  She employs 14 staff persons in a single operation, but with two branches.  She maintains a private practice and formed Lighthouse so she could accept Medicaid and low-income patients to focus on those families as a ministry.  Through Lighthouse and accepting Medicaid, she is able to treat patients who otherwise would have difficulty finding care.  She is able to receive those patients in a way that does not focus on income so they can maintain their dignity.  She employs five staff persons and two part-time dentists at Lighthouse whom she selected for their heart and interest in treating and caring for patients in need.

Recently, she had a child whose mom was in jail.  Keri commented that this ministry is not always easy.  The mother failed to show at a hospital appointment that had been scheduled along with an urologist to provide dental and unrelated surgery.  The mom called later and wanted to come at 3:00 PM that afternoon when she had been scheduled for 6:00 AM that morning.  That would not work for the medical and dental staff.  Situations like that can be frustrating.  Keri said: “Some parents with challenging lifestyles are not like the parents of routine dental patients from mainstream American households.  They may not have steady jobs or may have other complications such as being in jail.   Part of our ministry is patiently guiding and shepherding these parents back to responsible parenting and care of their children.  If Lighthouse’s focus was simply to report hard cases to family service agencies, that may disrupt the already fragile family structure more than if we can just gently guide them back with kindness so the children can get the care and treatment they need and hopefully a better family life situation.”

Keri’s “Lighthouse” vision began years earlier when she was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and raised in the Baptist church with a very strong, devoted family.  She did not “always walk with the Spirit,” but she knew about God, Jesus, and the Gospel and was expected to be in the church.  She loved children and had an interest in dentistry, so she gravitated toward pediatrics.

Keri attended the University of Alabama in Birmingham for her dental training and then moved back to Montgomery where she began practice with her own personal pediatric dentist.  She later became his partner in a group practice and opened a few satellite offices, one of which was in Auburn.  In August 2008, she split apart and moved to Auburn to take over that practice.  During those years, Keri saw that many children were often unable to receive quality dental care due to their families’ low-income level.  She realized her calling to offer treatment to every patient who came in her door and not just “bless the blessed.”  She wanted to treat all children, and her heart drew to children in poverty.  She soon realized she needed to open a separate clinic to manage the scheduling and special needs. It was then that “Lighthouse” was formed.

Keri said:  The practice has grown and grown and sees more patients each month.   Lighthouse currently sees about 45 patients a day. Some children may have minimal needs such as cleanings and check-ups while others require intensive treatment.  Either way, there is quite an opportunity for impact.  Health care is like the great equalizer.  Everybody has to have health care.  Our patients come to us expecting we will provide quality dental care for them, and yet we have opportunity to connect and minister to them as well.  It’s not just bodies, it’s souls.  And by extension through the children, we reach into the families as well.  It is different every day.  Every day there is something.  It is really just unbelievable.”

Hiring the right person is part of Keri’s business strategy, and she hires people who have a heart for the Lighthouse ministry.  “They have to be all in.   They have to understand and kind of ‘get it’…because it’s not always easy.  Kids will spit on you, people will treat you ugly, some will try to sue you.   I know there has been spiritual warfare going on.  My staff and I have very much felt attacked, but we pray a lot.  We pray a whole lot.  We went through a time when it seemed relentless.  We had employees with family hardships, a cancer diagnosis, one was hit in her car by a semi, there was unexplainable discord in the office.   So we finally decided to have a prayer meeting right there in the office.  Since that day, we have felt the heaviness lift.  The attacks have stopped.”

Keri added that Lighthouse is not only a ministry to its patients and families but also among the staff.  “A paycheck is one thing, but people love their jobs, not necessarily because there is a paycheck…they love helping people and making a difference.  I mean, really, that’s what we all want out of life, right?  We want to know that we made a difference, and the world is better.  I think that feeds the souls of all my employees because they are the ones who stock the clothes closet.  They are the ones bringing in their children’s hand-me-downs. They are the ones who are going and doing the outreach.   They are the ones who are circling around patients and praying for them. It’s not me.  They know the stories better than I do because they are the ones who talk with them.   I just provide an environment for them to be able to do that freely.”

As Lighthouse was coming into being, God awakened Keri’s heart for the poor both locally and globally.  One of Keri’s cousins was a missionary to the Dominican Republic, and he is now stateside with a non-profit that sends out missionaries.  In 2013, he invited and took Keri on her first trip to Haiti where she went to a Port Au Prince slum that had no available dental care.  Through that experience, she connected with the Christian Light School ministry and joined the board of directors.  She also connected with Have Faith Haiti mission founded by author Mitch Albom.  Since that first trip, she has returned every year to serve in both ministries.  She has gone twice a year to serve at Christian Light School and once a year for Have Faith Haiti mission.   She has provided dental care to children in the schools and orphanages and to the poor living in the “ravine” drainage canal area.  In November 2014, she visited a satellite school in Cornillon, a village high in the mountain area, and she offered a dental clinic to people who had never had any dental care before.

During these trips, Keri has treated adults who never had any dental care and had no conventional options to treat their pain.  She was able to provide anesthetics and medications to relieve their pain and cure their infections.  For others who have wanted help, she has had to find creative ways to explain the procedures and assure them because they were afraid and did not know what was going to happen to them.  Some, like Americans, have come to her just wanting their teeth “cleaned” to be white.  She’s had to explain that they had infections and other issues that needed to be taken care of, and they have resisted because of fear of further pain.  She’s had to coax and convince them that she can help them and actually take away their pain.  She has had children who literally fought her like the devil.

One of her first lessons about ministry was a little girl who did not understand what treatment Keri was trying to provide.  Instead, the girl literally thought Keri was trying to kill her and the child was trying to kill Keri in response.  The girl pulled Keri’s hair out and bit her and acted like the Tasmanian Devil.  She could not understand how Keri was trying to help her.  It made Keri realize that ministry is not all about people smiling and saying “thank you” or that they want you to help them and are appreciative.  Sometimes it is messy.  They do not necessarily want the help, or they do not understand how you are trying to help.  “Sometimes you skip lunch in 93 degree heat and get your hair pulled out by a kid. Some of it is not easy.  I know what I am doing is right, and I know what I am doing is going to help them.   Not only am I serving them, I am serving the Lord in doing these things.  Paul got shipwrecked, put in jail, and beaten, and all these things in his ministry, so why should I think that my ministry is going to be sunshine and roses?  Sometimes it’s hard.  It’s really hard.  But we are serving the Lord and we should do it with a grateful and cheerful heart.  It has been a journey.  I’ve had some bad days where I have questioned this ministry and whether I am up for it.  But in the end, I have also had times where in those hard times I have felt God say, ‘I am with you, I’m with you. I know it’s hard, but I am still here.  I’m with you.’  And you keep going because you know it’s true.”

And the experiences of Haiti have personally and deeply impacted Keri.   They have changed her.  “You look around and see the people who have absolutely nothing.  In that ravine, they have a tent, and it’s dirty and they can’t get clean.  I can’t imagine anything worse.  I know they probably have equally bad situations in India and different places like that.  You can’t get any less than what some of these people have.  And yet they still have such life in them, and they have such hope, and they can teach us.  In America we have so many things to distract us, to cloud our vision, and they don’t have the things to do that.  Their hope is in the Lord, it’s not in their things. And you realize how true that is and how maybe having what we have in America is almost a curse because we can’t see past it.  And their hope is in the Lord.  That is what they have.  And they look forward to heaven because that will be better than where they are.  I really don’t think we can see all that.  I always tell people when I take them to Haiti for the first time, there’s ways that God can speak to you there, there are things you can see that you can’t see when you’re at home.  The materialism that I think we are inevitably numb to, when all that is stripped away…they know God more.  The Haitians can see the miracles because they have to depend on them.  And we don’t.  We just don’t.  And we miss it.  We’re missing that.”

Having had those experiences, it has changed they way Keri lives back home.   “I think it does change you, it can’t help but change you.  I think it makes everything more real.  It’s not just a story in a book.  This is real.  So, when I go back home, I am more intent on making sure my life is going to make a difference at home.   I’m not just going to put on my Jesus clothes when I go on the mission field; I’m going to live it at home.  It becomes more a part of you.  It doesn’t just go away.  You don’t just think about it when you are in-country and then put it on a shelf.  I can’t do that anymore.  After it’s exposed and it’s real to you, you can’t put it away anymore.  So it does change you.  Going overseas makes you more missional where you are.  You can’t turn it off anymore.”

Keri’s first trip to Haiti was with her daughter in April 2013 over Easter.   She had a great experience but was unsure if she would ever go back.  In her work, she is a dental trauma specialist able to calm, nurture, and help children who have been hurt.  “It’s always very scary and can be very bloody, but I can help. I can put Humpty Dumpty back together.  I told you God knows where he wants you and how to get you there.  So in May 2013 at Mitch Albom’s Have Faith Haiti mission, a little girl broke her two permanent front teeth pretty badly.  The Haitian dentist wanted to extract one tooth and put a gold crown on the other.”  Keri looked at the situation and believed the teeth could be saved.  At first, she thought about sending money so the Haitian dentists could do the procedures.  That is how she believes things should be done, not with Americans coming down and taking over.  But the local dentists thought extraction was the only way.

So, in July of 2013, Keri and an assistant returned to Haiti.  She had thought the girl might need a root canal which is a procedure she usually referred out to an endodonist.  So before leaving, she contacted her endodonist friend who happened to have a spare dental treatment unit to donate.   With God’s hand of navigating through the barriers of customs, weight limits, transportation, and the Haitian heat, she got the unit safely to Haiti.  Keri was able to treat the little girl and save her teeth.  During her recent 2015 trip, she visited the girl and found she is doing just fine.  Without this incident back in 2013, Keri may have never returned to Haiti.

And the dental unit is still in Haiti and still in use.  Now, the mission has a dental office with a modern piece of dental medical equipment allowing children from two orphanages and others to receive good, competent dental care.  Keri has been able to build upon that unexpected provision and offer clinics and treatment when she has returned to Haiti.  Because of the continual care, the children in the area are now dental pain free.

Several of Keri’s employees have joined her ministry in Haiti.  This year, one returned to stay and serve for a month forgoing her work and income in the States. “It rubs off,” Keri beamed.

Just recently, Keri closed on the purchase of the Lighthouse property and looks forward with anticipation to the ministry continuing well into the future.   She is uncertain exactly what that future will hold but noted that: “Seven years ago, I had no idea I would be doing what I am doing right now.   When I leave Haiti, people ask me all the time when I will be coming back.  I don’t know when I am going back.  God hasn’t told me yet.  So, it’s day-by-day, and I think that’s what faith is…just day-by-day.  I don’t know what I am going to encounter…none of us do…so I am just going to keep walking, and he will let me know.  He’s let me know this many times so far…it’s time to go back to Haiti.  When the next time comes, I’ll know.  And we’ll set it all up and go again…or where ever we go.”

Keri also serves and mentors high school girls and encourages them to consider how they may serve God in their careers.  She explains, “I drive it home over and over.  What is your major?  How are you going to serve God with that major?  I know you are going to have a job and you have to make a living, but how are you going to make a life?  How are you going to serve God?  Consider that, if you are going to be a nurse, how are you going to use that for God’s glory?  No matter what you are, if you are an interior designer, whatever it is, always be on the lookout.  You have something to give. He is going to equip you…we are salt and light scattered through out the general population.”

Keri is married and has two children, a 15-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.  All are very well traveled in short-term missions.   Her son has served in the Dominican Republic a few times, in Uganda, and in Haiti.  Her daughter has also served in Haiti and was baptized in the ocean in the Dominican Republic at 8 years old.  Her husband has served in Uganda, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and also a few times in Guatemala where he has drilled water wells.  Her entire family has been “ruined for the normal” and finds purpose and blessing in serving others at home and abroad.

Keri holds dear the passage of Scripture that serves as the foundation for her Lighthouse ministry, Matthew 5:14-16:

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Keri explained, “So they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.  We are the light. We are the hands and feet.   We are the people on earth who are the salt and the light.  When we do those things…you know, when we do dental mission that’s one thing I really want to drive home with all the patients we see.  We are coming here not because we are nice people.  We’re not nice people.  We are coming here because we are representatives of Jesus Christ.  Jesus loves you so much that he sent us from America to help you.  Making that clear.  We are not humanitarians.   We are here because Jesus loves you…we are followers of Jesus, and Jesus loves you enough to send us to help you.   That’s important, especially in Haiti where they have so many people, the UN and so many others, come in from all these different places.  We are there because of Jesus Christ.”

That is the message of God’s love Keri brings. And that message, personally to her, means: “That is so broad…it is so deep.  That while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  I’ve been really steeped in grace the past couple of years.   I can’t seem to find a Bible study that isn’t surrounded by grace.  I’m just drawn to that right now and resting in that in my Bible studies.  I think if we ever get tired of that, we miss out.   You should never get tired of the Gospel, and that is the Gospel…that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  We weren’t even accepting him, didn’t even care!…and still he died for us…and because he did that for me, he forgave me…I can forgive…like what happened in Charleston…the grace these people have…these Christ-filled people…being able to look at that horrible boy after losing their loved ones and forgive him on the spot.  That is what Christ would have us to do, although it is so hard.  I don’t know that I would be able to do that so freely and publicly as they did.

But…it makes it easier when someone bites you or pulls your hair out while you are treating them…because I was biting, and clawing, and pulling hair trying to go my own foolish way…and even though I knew, I very well knew what was in the Bible and could spit it back out to you.  It was just saying words.  I don’t know that there was ever a single point in time in my adult life where I said, ‘Oh, now I understand.  Now, I’m going to re-commit my life’ or whatever you want to say…I was baptized at 7 years old…how worldly can you be at 7?  It was faith of a child, which is pure and true.  But I think that as you encounter the stages of life, you get a deepening of understanding, and it gradually set in…I knew the Word…but the meaning for it…it keeps pouring forth.  The love of Christ has done that for me.  It makes me able, because he loves me so deeply, and even when I was combative towards him…it makes it possible to love others…because it is impossible otherwise.  I assure you I can find a lot better place to vacation than a Port-Au-Prince slum, but the love of Christ compels me to spend my time and money to minister there.”

From her life experiences in growing and serving in the Love of God, Keri offers this bit of encouragement: “Going to another country and serving is a great thing to do.   I think that everybody in some point in their lives should go on a short-term mission trip.  But we are all missionaries right where we are.  We are all called to do God’s work in what we do.   God put us all in special places surrounded by special people to minister to.  We are all placed exactly where we need to be.  So all we need to do is open our eyes, see where we are, who is around us, and what do we have to give.  Even if it is the smallest thing, we can give something.  We will be blessed by that…and as I have found, that as you agree and say I am available to do God’s work, he will give you more…and more…and more.   And the next thing you know, you will look back and go, ‘Wow!’…I mean how the Lord can bless you and bless those around you by just saying I’m available with what I have.  The little boy had two fishes and five loaves of bread.   That’s all he had.  God used it in a mighty way.

I have dental skills to give and a heart for those who come in the office and need someone just to hug them and pray with them.  I have clothes my children have outgrown to give.  Whatever you have.  It doesn’t have to be something great.   Give what you have.  That’s all.  And you will see it be multiplied, like the little boy and his fish.  It’s truly amazing.  I’m not anything special.  I’m just available.”

For more information on Lighthouse Children’s Ministry, visit: http://www.lighthousechildrensdentistry.com  www.facebook.com/pages/Lighthouse-Childrens-Dentistry/157298274425030

For more information on Have Faith Haiti mission, visit: http://www.mitchalbomcharities.org

For more information on Christian Light Haiti School, visit: http://christianlighthaiti.org

Feel free to send a message of encouragement to Keri at: drkerimiller@gmail.com

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