The boys of Baltimore Collegiate School hold their “tie ceremony” on a September Saturday. The 3-year-old public charter on Woodbourne Avenue calls its students “gents,” and this annual ritual invites them to embody that moniker. “You have the opportunity every day to represent this community and your best self,” said one speaker, and after African drumming, a prayer, and singing, a mentor chosen by each boy knotted the school tie under his chin. The young man seated behind me didn’t have anyone with him, so I asked him if he wanted some help. He nodded, shook my hand when we finished, and asked me about how I was dressed. “What does that kind of collar mean,” he wondered. I told him a couple of things about the Episcopal Church and my job, but he waved all that off. “I think you look sharp,” he said, a 6th grader through and through.
Think about the symbolic quality of our dressing: brides in white gowns, scrubs at the hospital, service uniforms, vestments at church, business casual… In community organizing we were trained to wear what we thought the person at the head of the table would be wearing, in order to honor her and invite mutual respect. Do we teach our children what their clothes communicate, by design or unintentionally, why a hoodie on a lonely street corner can be threatening, how fashion can be used to empower or shame, why Jesus says if someone takes your coat, to give him your shirt, as well?
I mostly wore a clerical collar during my years at St. Albans School. The Headmaster, a lay person, felt strongly about having a priest in the role of Head of Upper School when he hired me, so I dressed the part. The chaplains and I were meant to stand out among the 300 blue blazers which filled the halls to bursting every 50 minutes, to signal safe harbor or discipline, as needed. “Be a presence,” he said to all the clergy. “This school functions as an old-fashioned parish, and you’re the village parson.” Despite that pastoral image, the hubbub between classes could be overwhelming—noisy and irreverent and free. Boys on crutches often chose to walk outside, one with chronic mobility issues was sometimes lifted above our heads to keep him safe, and if I had my toddler daughter with me, I learned to carry her and announce “little ears” to keep the boys’ language G-rated. Some days our dress code felt like it was what kept chaos at bay, the only way we were buttoned up.
When we moved to Long Island, which has a large Roman Catholic population, I found when I wore a collar that conversations changed at the barber shop or at the deli. Sometimes I was told I didn’t have to pay for my sandwich! So I began to wear a coat and tie during the work week, unconsciously at first, so that I would be treated like everyone else. By the time we got to Baltimore, I reserved “priest clothes” for services or pastoral calls.
Something happened this weekend that might change all that. Saturday was a full day, with a memorial service in the morning and a wedding that afternoon. By 6:30 p.m. I’d lost my voice, so I stopped in a Royal Farms for gas and hot tea. The woman behind the counter took me to the tea bags and hot water, showed me sugar and cream and stirrers, and lingered near me as I poured a cup. “Are you some kind of minister,” she asked me, pulling on her uniform collar. I told her who I was, and she stepped closer to me. “Why is everyone talking about Jerusalem on the news,” she asked. I talked about moving the embassy from Tel Aviv and the religious rhetoric being bandied about, and she wondered about the Second Coming of Christ. Stories began to tumble out: her fear of thunderstorms, the intensity of the lightening on Friday, the daughter she had when she was 14, her grandmother’s faith in those years, the violence in her neighborhood and around the country, the power of the Holy Spirit, whether she was doing the right thing in taking care of herself and not her relatives. As we parted, she thanked me for listening, and said this: “A whole lot of people need a minister to talk to, and they are not going to go to church to find them.” We had church that evening at Royal Farms.
We need each other in Baltimore, and more often than not, I think we are looking for a way to connect, to be heard, to make sense of things. And every one of us is some kind of minister, however we might be dressed.