I had been watching for this package to arrive in the mail for about a week. When it finally came, I carried it up to my office, closed the door, and opened it. Then I pulled out the first “clergy shirt” I have ever owned. It is black, long sleeved, with a little white tab that fits in the collar, and a fold of fabric that covers the buttons.
I have been involved in some kind of formal ministry for over 40 years, but it wasn’t until 25 years ago that I began to wear a robe when leading worship. I have come to love that practice. It both identifies with me as a clergy person, and reminds me and others that the role of “pastor” is about much more than the person who is in the robe.
For most of the last 25 years, that robe and the stoles I wear with it have been enough. I wore it with the rainbow stole my sister made for me when we all went down to the courthouse six years ago at midnight to celebrate the first “marriage equality” marriage licenses issued in our state. I wore it to the ceremony celebrating Nicklesville’s 10th anniversary. I wear it on the first Sunday of the month when a group of us stand on the corner of 45th and 15th, in a public witness “For the Common Good.”
In the last few years though, I have been called on much more often to attend public events where I want to be identified as a clergy person. When a Muslim woman was attacked on the UW campus two years ago, there was a call for religious leaders to stand together in Red Square to demonstrate solidarity. That was when it first occurred to me that I should get a “clergy shirt.” Since I didn’t have one, I wore my robe.
After the killings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg in October, I attended the memorial gathering at Temple de Hirsch. I wanted to stand together with my community to condemn gun violence, hatred, religious violence, and anti-Semitism. I wanted it to be clear that I was there as a religious leader, on behalf of my church. But my robe and stole were inappropriate. In the end, I wore my church sweatshirt, with the proclamation that “The world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love” stenciled on the back. Then I went home and ordered the shirt.
As it happened, the new shirt arrived just as I was scheduled to leave for our annual Pacific Northwest clergy retreat at Pilgrim Firs. I tucked the shirt into my suitcase.
At the retreat, I found myself asking others about their experiences “wearing the collar.” Some said they never had. Others told me they had been wearing collars for sometime, especially at public protests. One pastor said he always wore it if he anticipated getting arrested. Peter Ilgenfritz told a delightful story about wearing a borrowed shirt and clergy collar to Russia when he went there several years ago with folks from our congregation.
Then, on the last day of the retreat, I put on my brand new black, long sleeved shirt, fitted the little white tab into collar, buttoned the row of buttons under that little fold of fabric, and stepped out into the “public arena.”
At first I felt awkward and self-conscious. I was glad I was surrounded by clergy colleagues who could understand those feelings. And actually, when I showed up at breakfast, most of my friends didn’t even seem to notice my new shirt. The ones who I had talked with earlier though came and asked me how it felt. “I don’t know,” I answered. “I’m still figuring it out.”
“At some point you will probably forget you’re even wearing it.” one friend observed.
I wore the shirt through the morning program, and then headed out into the wider world. I wore it on the ferry back to Seattle, imagining, whether it was true or not, that I was getting odd looks from the other ferry passengers.
I wore it when I ran over to Kidd Valley to grab lunch. The woman who took my order didn’t say anything, or even register that she noticed my collar. But I left a bigger tip then I might have. I didn’t want her to think that church people are stingy.
I wore the shirt when I went to pick up my dog Lefty from Debra Jarvis’ house. She acknowledged the shirt right away, and it was nice to tell her about my experiment. “I don’t want the first time I wear it to be at a vigil or in some other high stress situation, so I am wearing it all day today to get used to how it feels.”
I wore it through the afternoon at church, first at our all church staff meeting, and then just around the building.
Then I wore it for a pastoral visit in a couple’s home. As soon as my parishioner opened the door and saw my shirt, she started laughing. It was a very supportive, joyful laugh. “That looks great on you” she said. “It just seems right.” Wow- one of the most supportive responses I got all day. I explained to her and her husband why I was wearing it, and at the end of our time together I asked him how it felt to be talking to me with my “collar” on.
“It was powerful,” he answered. “I felt I could still just talk with you like we always do, but your collar reminded me why we are together in this moment. This is more than a simple conversation. What we are talking about is sacred.”
I wore the shirt and collar back to church, to our monthly Council meeting. There were indeed a few moments when forgot I had it on. Then I wore it for my commute home. I like to imagine that the ferry workers who have gotten to know me over 17 years of commuting were surprised to see me in a clergy collar. But who knows? No one commented.
At the end of the day, when I finally took the shirt off, I was left with the awareness of how much this simple, public announcement of my faith affected me. It made me a bit more thoughtful and a bit more kind. It kept me a bit more conscious of “being in the now” and offering what blessings I can in the world. Like it has been with any public witness to my faith, I had gone from “awkward and self-conscious” to “This is me.” Most of all, in the words of my dear parishioner, it reminded me that what we are up to in this world is noticing the Sacred right here, right now, in our conversations and in all of our connections.
In this Advent season, may we all be so collared.