-By the Rev. Deacon Ryan Hall
“The Man in Black”
I was ordained in June; so, I am still something of a newbie clergyman, a Padawan Jedi if you will pardon the allusion to certain pop culture science fiction movies. If you will think back to that first Star Wars
Luckily, new people ordained to the
Perhaps my favorite story thus far has been on a bicycle ride. I usually ride my bike to work, and it was one of those hot August days when I was pedaling home. I had rolled up to a red light on O Street and stopped. As I was waiting for the light to turn, I heard little girl from an open car window next to me exclaim, “Look, mommy! That man’s dressed up like a penguin!” I remember that I actually had to step up on the curb because I was laughing so hard. I had not really thought about it prior to that, but to that little girl’s eyes I probably was quite a sight. A 6’3” sweating penguin riding a fire truck red ‘50’s style Flyer bicycle on the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska, in the year of our Lord 2007. That must have been quite a sight indeed.
Sometimes in seminary I had my days when I wondered what the point of the clerical collar was other than as some sort of weird clerical status symbol which caused many a seminarian to violate at least two of the Ten Commandments, particularly the ones involving coveting and to quote the old King James Version of the bible the making of “graven images.”
Believe it or not, there actually is a reason. Though he was not talking about clerical collars and clergy shirts, there is an old song Johnny Cash used to sing called “Man in Black” which I believe really captures that reason incredibly well. As the words of that song say, “Well, you wonder why I always dress in black, why you never see bright colors on my back, And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone, Well there’s a reason for the things that I have on…”
Back in the olden days when any dress shirt had detachable collars, the white fabric for the collar and the black fabric for the shirt were the cheapest cloth available. This was done intentionally as a sign of solidarity with the poor. I think that is a historical fact that has largely been lost, especially if you see the current prices for clergy shirts in such church supply catalogs as Wippell’s or Almy’s.
Perhaps that reason is antiquated, but if it is then so are clericals in general. I do not believe that clericals are antiquated though. Just as a policeman should be wearing a police officer’s uniform, I think clergy should be identifiable by their uniform. Clergy have the added grace of having a uniform that is not about flashy military ribbons, but instead, in the words of the Johnny Cash song, we get to “wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,” and to “wear the black for those who never read, Or listened to the words that Jesus said.” So if anyone ever asks why your ministers are dressed up like penguins, you can regale them with a tale about how it is not a backwards collar but a reminder of how all Christians, not just clergy, are called to social justice because as Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story…”