The Clergy Collar and the MTA

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In the months since I’ve been ordained to the diaconate I’ve been trying to figure out my collar wearing policies. Once upon a time, back before I went to seminary, I had a mentor who was almost never seen without a collar. Back then I imagined I’d also make that choice when the time came. After I was ordained I had a lot of really difficult things happening in my life all at once, and I wasn’t all that thrilled about wearing a collar in public. At the time I just didn’t have the emotional and spiritual resources to be available to anyone, any time without warning.

As time goes by, however, I find my feelings about wearing the collar changing yet again. I suppose some of this is because they’ve had to change; after all, I’ve been wearing the collar every time I serve as a hospital chaplain. I was tempted in the beginning to forget about the collar because I felt like such a bad chaplain that I didn’t want anyone to know I was actually ordained. I resisted that temptation and I’ve started to become more comfortable wearing clericals in the hospital setting and in the world at large. One setting in which I seem to spend a lot of time in the collar is on public transit.

New Yorkers have a reputation for a been there, done that attitude. They are masters of the art of appearing completely unmoved by what’s going on around them. Incidents on the subways or buses that would make people from other places gape open-mouthed don’t inspire New Yorkers to so much as glance up from the New York Times (on paper or on their iPhones). New York is also an incredibly diverse place. You get so used to seeing all different kinds of people, dressed all different ways, that eventually it just all kind of blends together in a whirl of colors and languages. 

As I’ve traversed the city in clericals over the past five months, I’ve often wondered what, if any impression it makes on people to see someone dressed like that. I sometimes get stared at, but I really have no way to know what people actually think. Do they think it’s a good thing, bad thing, or just a really weird thing to run into clergy on the subway or the bus? Does it matter that I’m a woman? If I tell that rude taxi driver exactly what I think of him almost running me over in the intersection, will I offend anyone? Does anyone even care?

I don’t know the answers to most of these questions, but I got one answer loud and clear today. I learned that people do indeed notice what I wear. This afternoon I was sitting on a bus wearing clericals when a woman dropped into the seat next to me. I hadn’t even noticed her (too engrossed in my New York Times on my iPhone perhaps?) but she had clearly noticed me, because she asked me to pray with her. If you had asked me, oh, 5 years ago if I could imagine that one day I’d be riding on a New York City bus, my hand on a stranger’s shoulder, praying spontaneously, out loud for her, I would have told you it would never happen. 

But today, it did.

And I was amazed. And glad.

And it brings up a whole other issue with wearing the collar. Are we wearing it so other people see us, recognize us, and are somehow changed/moved/helped/inspired by the idea that there are “ordained” people among us (whatever that means)? Or, is it something else?

I never forget I’m wearing a collar. It’s plastic. It’s not the most comfortable thing I’ve ever worn. It’s not attractive or fashionable or anything else. It forces me to cover up way too much skin. We (clergy) might tell ourselves all kinds of things about why we wear clothing that makes us visible to the world in a unique way. But I wonder (thinking back to my temptation to curse out the rude taxi driver, for example) if the reality is that clergy are the kind of people that need a bit of extra help. Perhaps it is that we are the ones who need an extra kick to remind us how we’re supposed to behave and how to treat people. I don’t mean that because we’re clergy we’re required to be extra “good.” No, perhaps we’re the type of people who are just more stubborn, just more opinionated, just a little more difficult for God to get through to than the average. We can come up with all sorts of other theological rationales for our clothing choices, but for some of us (okay, for me at least) at the end of the day the collar reminds us of who we ultimately belong to and what we’re ultimately supposed to be about. And it keeps me from cursing out too many taxi drivers.

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~ by Sophia on October 25, 2009.

4 Responses to “The Clergy Collar and the MTA”

  1. Living in suburbia, I rarely wear my collar except on Sunday mornings as no one really sees me drive in my car from the house to the office. But, a couple of months ago I went to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore to visit a patient. I decided to wear my collar since the hospital is huge and I figured it would be easier for me to have access to people in my collar.

    As I was leaving the hospital, I had completely forgotten that I was wearing my collar. I was riding down in the elevator when two women joined me. One of them immediately asked me to pray for her. My first thought was, “Wow. that’s odd that she would just ask me that out of the blue.” Then, I remembered I was wearing my collar. Duh.

    I prayed for her and we exchanged pleasantries and went on our own way. It was an odd, but satisfying moment. And left me wondering if I should wear my collar when I’m out and about more often.

  2. I tend to use clerical wear as a uniform, wearing it when I’m “on duty.” This means office hours, Sunday worship, pastoral visits, etc. I do this for both of the reasons you mention here: to be more identifiable/accessible, and as a reminder to me of who and whose I am– the commitment to service I have made not only by baptism, but by ordination vows as well.
    As someone once told me, “God collars those who ought not be running around loose as laypeople.”

  3. Interesting comment, Julie, because my most recent interesting encounter while wearing the collar was at Johns Hopkins, where I had gone to visit a parishioner. Ues, it brings all sorts of folks to your side, even when you’re trying to get to the elevator or out the door, but even when I get a wee bit cranky and want to escape, it seems these are the people God wants me to converse with in that moment, and after it’s all over, it inevitably turns out to be a blessing moment for me. The collar still doesn’t feel natural to me, but the feel of it around my neck reminds me of the yoke we put on, like our stoles…and I regularly need to be reminded of the great gift of that yoke.

  4. I wear my collar whenever I’m working, and it has opened doors for some amazing conversations that I likely wouldn’t have had otherwise (including on the subway). On another blog I was reading today someone wrote that she wore her collar in part as a mark of gratitude for how God was working in her life. I like that.

    And then I heard someone say, “God knew some people needed a collar–and a leash!” 🙂

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