Customarily, I don’t wear collars. In great and best part, because I am comfortable in my vocational role and ontological identity as a minister. In lesser, but still important part, because for quite a while I’ve been disinclined to be a projection screen and much less a magnet for the not so sanguine attitudes, at times, barely suppressed animus about the institutional church harbored by folk (at times, perfect strangers on planes or on the street who, it seems, were driven by the energy of anger to share with me the painful chapters of their histories with organized religion).
My personal role-comfort and public discomfort aside, my chosen anonymity has a downside. I, all too often, act on my all too native human tendency to prejudge how others might react, and, even worse, to project upon them my presumptions of what they think and feel.
Yesterday, the church I am privileged to serve, St. Mark’s Episcopal, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, hosted a gala celebration to dedicate our recently completed Parish Hall. Several years of dreaming and planning, designing and building, countless hours of labor by parishioners in various roles working alongside architects and contractors, and, yes, raising (and spending!) millions of dollars, came to a fitting, fruitful conclusion. Now, of course, we begin in earnest our work of living in our new building. And, as I approach retirement, I, with gratitude, have the honor of bequeathing to my successor beautiful, bountiful, environmentally-conscious and sustainable space.
Back to clergy collars and perceptions. Perhaps because our bishop was coming to preside at the service of dedication. Perhaps because I knew the place would be packed, looking more like Easter Day. Perhaps because I, having a prominent role in the service, wanted, needed to look the part. I wore a collar.
Walking the several blocks to church, I confess that I was self-conscious. I noticed or imagined looks askance from the people I passed on the way. In particular, a well-dressed couple who I assumed was on the way to church, responded to my “Good morning” he with a slight frown, she with a wan smile. No doubt taking their response too personally, feeling chastened, I turned off the busy boulevard of East Capitol, heading to the quieter A Street. With St. Mark’s in two blocks’ sight away, I relaxed. Just ahead, a young man, wearing running garb and with earbuds firmly in place, stepped from his front porch, stood on the sidewalk, braced himself against the wrought iron fence, and began to stretch. I approached and, without a word, stepped past him.
“Excuse me, sir.”
Surprised, I spun around looking into a smiling countenance illumined by a pair of bright, inquisitive eyes.
“I noticed your collar. You’re a minister, right?”
“Yes, I am.”
“You’re on your way to church?”
“Yes,” I pointed over my shoulder. “St. Mark’s.”
“That’s great! You have a blessed day, sir.”
“Thank you. I will. You, too.”
Continuing on my way, I smiled, I laughed at myself at my presumption that this young man would take no notice of me and, if so, by reason of the collar, that his response would be ambivalent at best. I was wrong about him at that morning moment of our passing and later in the day. For at our Sunday afternoon Contemplative Eucharist, there he was and with a friend.