Several weeks ago, I went to a wine tasting at a restaurant bar with a girlfriend of mine. Because I had come straight from the hospital, I was still wearing my work clothes, including my clerical collar. We sat at the head of the bar, talking, enjoying our wine, and splitting a pizza. Little did I know, I was creating a big stir. Eventually, a couple came up to us and said, “Excuse me, but are you a nun?” I smiled and told them that no, I was not a nun; I am an Episcopal priest. They looked pleasantly surprised and informed me that they were Catholic. The next time I went to the same restaurant bar, this time with my husband, the bartenders were highly amused that so many people had been curious about the woman + collar + drinking wine bit. Over the past year that I’ve been wearing the collar in the buckle of the Bible belt, I’ve received some different reactions, most notably confusion and ignorance. This article by Catherine Caimano confirmed what I had been suspecting – most people have no idea what the collar means, particularly when it’s a woman wearing it.
Another time, I ran out for lunch shortly before Easter weekend. The cashier asked me if I had any big plans for the weekend. I laughed, gestured towards the collar, and said, “Yeah, it’s Easter weekend.” He just looked confused. As Caimano puts it, the purpose of wearing the collar or any kind of religious habit is “to identify the wearer as religious, as someone who bears the traditions of the church even in the secular world and sometimes calls into question the values of that world.” But what good is it if people don’t really know what it means?
I live in a very religious part of the country, but as one of the bartenders in Amerigo put it, “People assume you’re either Baptist or Catholic.” There’s not a lot of room for anything in between and not a lot of knowledge of religious practices outside those two expressions of Christianity. I still fight to be recognized as an educated, called, and ordained minister on some days. Families at the hospital have referred to me as “that nice lady who prayed with us” and not as pastor, priest, minister, or chaplain simply because they don’t have a religious framework that puts together female and minister.
I love wearing the clerical collar. I love what it represents, even if I have to explain it, and I hope that more people will be like the couple who asked me if I was a nun. Because yes, I am a woman, and yes, I am 27 years old, and yes, I drink wine with my friends or husband at a bar after work sometimes, and yes, I am a priest, and yes, I love Jesus and serve God and God’s Church.
The bigger issue, as Caimano names it, is one of living in a world where Christian signs and symbols are no longer the lingua franca. We (I) can’t just assume that everyone knows what the collar means or what a priest does, even (especially) living in the Bible belt. And that makes it even more crucial to talk about it.