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Jim McDermottMay 17, 2023
A screenshot of a TikTok video of Denise, who plays heaven's receptionist, dressed in a bathrobeTikTok screenshot

This week The Washington Post profiled “Denise, Heaven’s Assistant,” a TikTok series created by the current Miss New York, Taryn Delanie Smith, in which she plays the receptionist at the entrance to heaven. If you’ve never seen Ms. Smith’s two-minute sketches, they are well worth a look.

There’s the one where Whitney Houston shows up to do a pop-up concert in reception. The one where Ms. Smith takes a sip of her tea and then recoils. “Who turned my tea into wine,” she says, looking around at the other people in the office (whom we can’t see). “This was water 20 minutes ago. It’s not funny.”

Some of Ms. Smith’s posts get upward of 500,000 likes, including many people sharing about friends or family whom they have lost.

Or the one where a mega church preacher asks whether he is eligible for “Angel Premium Plus” (basically, wings) and Denise—who always seems to be sitting in the clouds—looks through his history. “So it says here you had a private jet?… Right, of course and you flew it all around, that’s fun,” she says. Asking how he paid for the jet, she cocks her head listening to his explanation for a moment and then smiles: “I feel like you know what I’m about to say.”

It’s a delightful performance by Ms. Smith, who plays the role dressed in a white bathrobe with a white towel around her head and a pink disposable razor at her cheek standing in for a phone headset. And her sketches have resonated. Some of Ms. Smith’s posts get upward of 500,000 likes and thousands of comments, including many people sharing about friends or family whom they have lost and asking for a video in which Denise greets them. (Ms. Smith has produced a number of such videos, like Denise welcoming a 2-year-old child into heaven, or a shy 20-year-old who died suddenly, and wow, are they moving.)

@taryntino21 Angel premium plus request rejections and downstairs pass flags just another monday #heaven#receptionist♬ Bossa nova that looks good in a cafe(976272) - MiYAMO

Given the kind of attention her shorts have created, I think there are lessons for those of us who work in ministry, whether as parish workers, school teachers or clergy, and maybe for those who lead the church as well.

Don’t Be Afraid to Just Be Human

I’m surprised to say this, because there’s so much fun stuff going on in Ms. Smith’s videos, but for me what is most affecting is the overall presentation. Denise really is the heavenly equivalent of the service staff at the DMV or the post office; she sips her Dunkin’ coffee, rubs in hand lotion and frequently talks to unseen fellow receptionists.

“How was your vacation? You look tan,” she says to her coworker Miss Stacy when she gets into work one morning. And of course she’s always in that bathrobe. It’s supposed to be a stand-in for angel robes, but I find it much more effective because it completely disperses any airs about her role. She’s just a nice person, and this entryway into heaven is a nice place where people are kind to each other, all pets are welcome—they don’t even have to wait in line to get into heaven—and there is a margarita room in the back where Betty White hangs out.

When we’re okay enough with ourselves to just be who we are, we give others permission to do the same.

Sometimes as a minister in the church I think I’m supposed to have it all together, or to hide the ways that I don’t, so that others feel comfortable sharing what they have to share. That’s the conventional wisdom, too; don’t let your own issues get in other people’s way. But watching Ms. Smith perform, it’s so clear how reassuring it can be when we let down our guards and show our ordinary selves. When we’re okay enough with ourselves to just be who we are, we give others permission to do the same.

Go With the Flow

One of the things that’s striking about Ms. Smith’s TikTok feed is how often she responds to viewers in the comments. She thanks people for their praise, laughs at their jokes. And when people comment about people that they have lost or that they miss, she slips back into Denise to offer a warm response. “Can you tell Chadwick we miss him?” someone asks, referring to the actor Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer in 2020 at age 43. “Yes I just saw him pass by chatting with MLK,” Ms. Smith responds. “They get along so well.” To someone else who tells her their brother died this week: “He was light and love…he definitely got the upgrade,” she writes. “Promise you he’s a VIP angel.”

Ms. Smith admits that she’s sometimes overwhelmed by just how many messages she gets related to people’s experiences of loss.

In the Post article, Ms. Smith admits that she’s sometimes overwhelmed by just how many messages she gets related to people’s experiences of loss. One commenter wrote: “I don’t think you realize how comforting this is for people afraid of death or mourning over someone including me.” It’s certainly not what any of us might have expected from a series of TikTok videos about an angel who talks into a razor. But Ms. Smith has rolled with it. “Didn’t realize when I first made this series,” she told the commenter, “but now I’m so glad.”

In ministry I can get so set on my own vision of what I’m supposed to be doing, what it means for me to be a minister in the church. But so often the people tell us what they actually need us to be doing. Then it’s up to us to let go of our old models and adjust.

It’s like that old saying: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Leave Judgment to ‘The Boss’

Denise deals with a wide variety of people, from people who have just arrived in heaven and are trying to make sense of it all to famous figures who have been there forever, like William Shakespeare (whose emails go on forever). “I’m not reading all that,” she tells another receptionist. “It’s like eight pages long.”

Some of her funniest interactions are with people who have done some bad things but still want upgrades. One person shows up despite having apparently called and been told no by Denise on the phone. She smiles, saying she was expecting them. “Here are all your tweets from 2008,” she says, pulling out a file folder.

@taryntino21 Ignore the makeup on my collar i know i need to get my heavenly robes cleaned. #denise#heaven#receptionist♬ Bossa nova that looks good in a cafe(976272) - MiYAMO

In another video she listens to a woman complaining about not getting upgraded to Angel Premium Plus. “I understand your frustration, ma’am. I understand. So do you remember when you said all those things to your son Ricky when he came out to you?” she asks. ”Yeah, right, so we didn’t like that.”A third caller hopes that her granddaughter is not going to end up in heaven, because she had a child while unmarried. “Well I hope you’re sitting down,” Denise tells the woman. “We don’t care.”

The joke in each of these sequences is in our blindness to our own flawed selves. But the humor is gentle.

While we may feel a certain satisfaction in watching some of these people get knocked down, Denise herself is more understanding. People’s past actions may have consequences on what they can “get” in heaven, but it doesn’t affect how she treats them. “I won’t be seeing you back here,” she says to the person with the nasty tweets, and her tone is not mocking or threatening but playful. It’s the tone in which you’d kid a school friend who got caught doing something they shouldn’t. “Alright, you have a good day,” she says.

There’s even one character who is clearly a demon. She has red eyes, a frighteningly enormous smile and is always going “downstairs” (i.e., to Earth) to haunt people.At one point the demon tells Denise she would like her “ghost costume,” or the version of her that living people will see, to be a “dirty nightgown.” “That’s really scary, that’s a really scary choice,” Denise says, concerned. But eventually she agrees to it.

In another video the demon admits she just came from “terrorizing a suburban family in their home.” “I keep on vouching for you,” Denise says. “I’m sorry,” the demon admits. “This must put you in a weird position.” Denise revokes her “downstairs pass,” but nothing more.

The joke in each of these sequences is in our blindness to our own flawed selves. But the humor is gentle. This isn’t about smiting anyone. “Listen,” Denise says, gossiping to Miss Stacy after one case, “only my boss can judge.”

For those of us who work in the church there’s a ready temptation to think that it’s our responsibility to judge people. We’re the ones with the experience and training, and also the roles. When you’re a priest sitting in a confessional, a bishop tasked with teaching the faith for an entire diocese, or a receptionist fielding visitors and requests for a parish, it’s natural to start to think of yourself as the final arbiter. But watching Denise, it’s clear how meaningful and also liberating it can be to simply treat everyone with generosity and respect.

God will take care of the judgment. In the meantime, it’s surprising how much you can help build the kingdom just by welcoming guests in a bathrobe.

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