Posts Tagged debate

The Power of Recognition

From time to time someone I don’t know figures out that I’m a minister.  This is most often in a setting where that’s a safe guess: someone in a jacket and tie asking where they can find a particular patient in a hospital is quite likely to be a minister.  Sometimes it happens elsewhere — at the counter of a fast food restaurant, for example — particularly if the other person has already guessed that the chalice design on my lapel pin is a religious symbol.

There are situations where it’s helpful to be identified as a minister, of course.  I’m more likely to be allowed into the Emergency Room to see a member of the congregation — or to be with the family of that member — if I have a badge with “clergy” on it.  There are also situations where it isn’t helpful, where the other person becomes painfully self-conscious or sees me as a challenge to their own faith or even feels the need to confess what they think are their sins!

Furthermore, there are situations where being recognized as a minister can make a big difference.  When you see clergy at protests, for instance, it sends a powerful message that this isn’t just a secular matter of unfairness but a religious matter of injustice.  My colleague Rev. Jeanne Pupke of First UU in Richmond shared with me her decision to wear a clerical collar at public witness events after seeing photographs of collared ministers at civil rights protests in the 1960s.  The media certainly pays more attention to the presence of people in clerical collars, particularly if they’re being arrested for civil disobedience!

In the July 2010 “Day of Non-Compliance” protests over Arizona’s SB 1070, for instance, many Unitarian Universalist ministers wore clerical collars.  Now few of them would wear such garb in their own pulpits — the stole is standard for an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, even more than the preaching robe — and yet there is power in being easily recognized as clergy, by the media, by those with whom we stand in solidarity, by fellow protesters of all faiths and, yes, by other Unitarian Universalists.  Some of those collared ministers also wore yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts on top of their clergy shirts — demonstrating a willingness to suffer for a good cause in the heat of Phoenix in July! — and helped contribute to the visibility of “the love people”, as the yellow-clad Unitarian Universalist protesters became known.

Given that the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association will take place in Phoenix — and is specifically recast as a “Justice GA” — I’ve been considering buying a shirt with a clerical collar.  I’d wear it at public witness events, at GA and elsewhere, whether protesting racial profiling, worker exploitation, economic injustice or marriage inequality.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, I saw an announcement from the UU Ministers’ Association that a well-established outfitter of church supplies and clerical attire would be selling clergy shirts in the yellow of the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign and with the campaign’s heart symbol on one sleeve.  “What a great idea!” I thought.  “That solves two problems in one go!”

Not all of my colleagues agree with me.  Some dislike the shirts on aesthetic grounds.  Others object to what they see as the corruption of a religious message through merchandising.  Some complain about the self-righteous Unitarian Universalist sense of “terminal uniqueness”, that we’re entirely separate from “mainstream” religion.  Others argue that we are separate and thus have no right to a traditional symbol of Christian ministry.  (“Traditional” should probably be in quotes: the Church of England records that the clerical collar was invented by a Scottish Presbyterian minister in the 1890s, and was only adopted by Catholic priests in 1960s.)

On the other hand, I remember the story (as related by UU minister Dick Gilbert) that in 1917 the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church assembled in St. Petersburg, and while they were engaged in a bitter debate over the color of priestly vestments, the revolution was raging just a few blocks away.  So, I’m buying the shirt and I’ll wear it at protests and other places where I’m a minister who works for justice, because it’s the revolution that really matters, not the debate.


I hope you’re enjoying a happy and peaceful holiday season and I wish the best for you and yours in the new year!

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