My mother and father were both born in Oklahoma. My mother made the trip from Oklahoma to Oakland, California, in her last trimester. My coming into the world corresponded with my father's discharge from the service, and the cost of my arrival was covered by the United States Navy. Soon after my birth, my parents packed me into their Volkswagen Bug and drove me home. Maybe this planted an early seed for my love of road trips, but the Oklahoma wind always seems to call me home. After graduating from high school, the road beckoned. I left Oklahoma City and lived in Belgium, Texas, Chicago, and Cleveland before returning to the land of scissortail flycatchers and red tailed hawks. This land is in my bones. Her woods to me are holy. Her thunderstorms are a lullaby. I did not know when I heard my call to ministry in Dallas, Texas, that I would return here. I did not know at the time that the largest church in the association and the church I would be called to serve was only an hour and a half away from my childhood home.
I am now in my 8th year of ministry. I am the first openly gay minister of a church that began in 1921. The people at the church where I serve are gracious, persistent, and fearless leaders living out their values in the reddest state in America. That is not to say that they are all Democrats. It does mean that mixed in with their socially liberal values are conservative nuances of commitment, fiscal responsibility, and tradition. We have three services on Sunday morning: a traditional high church Unitarian service with organ and robes, a contemporary Protestant flavored Universalist service supported by a praise choir, and a non-theist service with jazz music that celebrates the human spirit and where the ministers do not robe. So on any given Sunday, you will find a minister in a suit or dress as well as in a formal robe and stole. Our ministers do not typically wear a any sort of religious garb unless we are in the community serving a very specific purpose where we need to identify as clergy.
My own history with wearing a collar began in seminary when I was a chaplain intern at a maximum security men's prison in Joliet, Illinois. I was encouraged to wear it to set me apart from the other female visitors -- mostly lawyers, social workers, and therapists. The collar seemed to shield me from sexual advances that were ever present on the block. It garnered respect and curiosity in addition to encouraging a conversation. When I later became a chaplain at a university hospital, I experimented with wearing a collar as well. In the Emergency Room or the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where I served most, the collar seemed to either gain me instant access and familiarity or instant resistance and rejection. Occasionally, both reactions would occur in the very same family. At the time, it felt as though my collar got in the way more than it assisted me in my support of patients and their loved ones.
Recently, I was asked by a local professional organization to be a spokesperson for a campaign that celebrates the diversity of my city's leaders. I thought it would be appropriate to wear my collar to the photo-shoot so I would immediately be recognized as clergy to all who see the campaign. My tagline will read, "God doesn't discriminate." I dressed in the morning for an appointment with the photographer that was at the end of the day. Before my appointment, I had a few meetings at church, stopped to put air in my tires, went to my guitar lesson, and had a meeting at a coffee shop/bar. When I arrived at church, one of my staff was so stunned by my appearance she could not contain her laughter. "Is it Halloween?!" she joked. When I stopped to put air in my tires, a nice young man from the gas station came out to see if I needed any assistance. At my guitar lesson, the student before me, a man who had never spoken to me before, became an open book. In a matter of minutes, I learned that he was married and for how long, his previous profession, current job situation, and frustrating financial struggles. The student who followed my lesson, a previously chatty man in his late 60's when I was in my cowboy boots and jeans, was visibly surprised by my appearance and chose to simply nod silently in my direction. At the coffee shop, I was a bit self-conscious about my ordering the holiday drink special, a delicious hot apple cider with vanilla and caramel vodka. The bartender flashed me one of those smiles that ended in more of a smirk. It was clear that I had forgotten the power of assumptions, appearances, and the collar.
What I realized during the course of that day was that I had been flying stealth in the community. Because my faith has no standard clerical garb, I have been able to choose when and whether I presented myself as a minister. After 8 years of being nurtured by my church for the whole of who I am, my next most obvious step is to come out as a clergy person. I decided I would make 2014 an experiment. I had a long conversation with my wife about the implications and timing of my idea. I asked for support from my Senior Minister and staff. And Under the Collar in Oklahoma was born. For 6 days a week, every day but Sunday in 2014, I will wear my collar to all of my daily activities and write about my experience. (Because I am already so obviously a minister on Sunday to the congregation that called me, it feels redundant to wear it on Sunday.) You, dear reader, will journey with me as I embrace and struggle with the advantages and confines of the collar, the culture of my home state, and my role as a minister.