The Ministry of Denim
I don’t know exactly when I started doing this. When I first began attending the Episcopal church in this town, I “dressed up.” Dress. Hose. Heels. The whole nine yards.
Maybe it was when I was involved deeply in “congregational development” conversations – about how we could be more welcoming to visitors and seekers.
But at some point, I started mostly wearing jeans to church in cold weather and shorts in warm weather. It was an intentional decision on my part. If visitors came into our parish wearing nice suits or dresses, they would find plenty of people who would just like them. But I worried about the people who might come in wearing jeans or dirty khakis or even rags. I wanted them to find someone who might look a little like them So I started wearing jeans.
Image (at right) from here.
I recognize I am often the worst-dressed member of the parish. But I decided I was dressing for visitors – not for God and certainly not for my fellow parishioners. In a weird way, wearing jeans and shorts became something like a nonverbal ministry in my mind.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m traveling and will be out of town on a Sunday, I check the Web to find a parish where I might feel comfortable. This has led me to some truly marvelous parish visits where I have been made to feel truly at home.
Recently, I figured out what parish one of the StandFirm leaders attends. I went to that parish website. As is my wont, I searched mostly for photographs, to see what the parish “looks like.” Two things struck me from the photographs that the parish has chosen to post.
First, I was struck that it is an incredibly white congregation. That was jarring to me, given the large percentage of my parish that is African or African American.
Second, I was struck by how people dress … at least as depicted on the parish website. All the men in suits. All the women in lovely dresses … which they could have worn to a lovely garden party. And almost every woman with a pearl necklace. I recoiled. I knew – just by looking at the images – that I would never be comfortable or welcome in that parish. Way too uptight, hide-bound, and “proper” [in all the worst senses of that term] for my taste.
I wonder: What do the photos on your parish website say about your congregation?
On Ash Wednesday, when I served as crucifer, a new (3-generation) family appeared in our parish. The grandmother was a born and baptized Episcopalian who had somehow fallen out of the habit of attending church. The daughter was baptized, but lapsed after confirmation. The granddaughter had never been baptized and never attended church. They were drawn back to church on Ash Wednesday. What a blessing! I met them before the service and had some good conversation afterwards. [As it happens, the granddaughter is now in instruction with our rector and may be baptized soon.] I like this family!
A couple of Sundays later, I saw and talked with them again, when I was just a “butt in the pew.” The grandmother took a look at me and said to the teenage granddaughter: “See! She’s wearing jeans!” So was the granddaughter, but she had thought she wouldn’t be accepted in her denim … though her grandmother had told her she would. They had seen me in my vestments in a couple of services, but then saw me in jeans. I could see the relief in that teenager’s face: If someone who is a leader in the parish [as I suppose she perceived me] could wear jeans on Sunday, then it really was ok for her to do so, too.
I have a hunch that if we want people to feel welcome, we need to look like them. Mind you, when I’m serving at the altar, I’ll wear the obligatory black slacks, black socks, and black shoes. But when sitting in the pew, I’m going to dress for comfort and dress so that the down-and-out might find someone who looks like them.
I consider it a non-verbal ministry. That's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.