Under The Collar Experiment

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

In the Beginning...

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.
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23 comments:

  1. I'm glad to hear that a UU minister is doing this. I actually have just committed to wearing my collar one day a week (Wednesdays). I was inspired by our colleague, Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford, who's been wearing her collar regularly for some time:

    http://bootsandblessings.blogspot.com/2013/12/me-and-my-collar.html

    Six days a week will be a very different experience than mine, though. It will be interesting to read how people's interactions with you change over time. I hope this is a positive experience.

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    1. Its funny the synergy... As soon as I mentioned it to Marlin he sent me to Rev. Joana's page...My gay pride pin will come later.. first I have to tackle being a woman in a collar.. we still have a long way to go.

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    2. Yes, it won't be the same for me as a straight cis-man, plus being in a different part of the country now. Still, looking forward to hearing all the experiences.

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  2. Can't wait to follow along and see how the year goes. Blessings!

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  3. First I must say I like your coffee shop better than those I have been in. :) and second I look forward to hear how you are perceived by those around you with the collar on rather than by just being seen as just another person in the crowd.

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    1. Thanks Susie! It was The Phoenix in Tulsa. Highly recommend it.

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  4. "Put on the armor of God..."
    Great resolution / challenge for the new year! I have come to know the grace of humility since becoming more visible with my faith. It's much harder to express my road rage with Jesus dangling from my rearview mirror. lol
    Good luck, and may this new year welcome you to a closer and deeper relationship with The Big Guy (:

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    1. Thank you! Driving will be a challenge for me, too. The armor of God does not keep me from wanting to speed... unfortunately.

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  5. I am looking forward to reading your stories -- especially because you are doing this experiment in the "reddest" of the states. I thought the story about the coffee shop was interesting -- the reaction of others tells you where the differences between liberal religion and conservative culture are most pronounced.

    Best of luck with the blog -- it is an ever-hungry beast !

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    1. Tom- I am limiting myself to 3 posts a week so that it doesn't consume me writing. Now how do I keep myself off the stats page???

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  6. Oh, this will be interesting. I am an old woman, and I often dress like the archetypal old woman. I always wear pearl stud earrings, and my hair is gray. I dress old sometimes, in an Italian grandmother dress. When I dress old, I am treated with more respect. I notice that car mechanics are more polite now, and guide me by the elbow when I'm going up steps. Flight attendants are kinder. Dressing like the archetype has its advantages. I'm so looking forward to reading about your adventures.

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    1. Love the parallel. I am very interested in archetypes, stereotypes and allyship. There will be lots to ponder I am sure that will translate across multiple contexts.

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  7. As a collar wearer, myself, I can tell you that you're going to have a very interesting experience in the coming year. What I've found to be interesting is that while people in the community often respond to the collar - either positively or negatively - the same is true for the folks in the UCC churches I've led, where collars are not a typical fashion choice among the clergy. You might want to slip the collar on on a Sunday morning, just to see how the congregation responds. FAIR WARNING: You might decide to keep wearing it, even after the year's experiment is up.

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    1. We shall see! Thanks for tuning in!

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  8. When I realized you were wearing a collar six days a week, I thought the seventh would be your day off. Interesting to see that the day you'll not be wearing it is Sunday. Can you explain this a bit more? I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on it. Is the place you can least wear the collar your own congregation, even if they know that you're engaged in this? Do you not feel you might want a day off from ministry in the week? Interested to hear more of your thoughts. Good luck with the journey.

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    1. Cynthia- The seventh day is Sunday. My congregation already sees me as a minister. They support me and my ministry. To me there is a redundancy in the project at this stage in wearing it on Sunday. I will still have it on Wednesday nights and we have chapel, dinner and classes then. Sunday worship with 3-4 ministers on the chancel, I would also be the only minister wearing a collar. And we have a plain clothes non-theist service that it would be inappropriate, in my opinion to wear it in. My "days off" which are Saturday (when I have no memorials, weddings or training) and Monday I am wearing the collar in public.. And my pajamas at home. Hope that clarifies.

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    2. Yes, thanks. I still think it's mighty ironic that the place where it's most "inappropriate" is church!

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  9. I admire your courage and commitment to seeing this through, Tamara...thanks for sharing your experiences and insights...I already know that reading them will help me decipher some of my own. I'll also be sharing this endeavor and your stories with the congregation I serve in Downeast Maine...Thank you!

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    1. So excited to share the experience with you and your congregation! I think that I will be able to tackle many topics in this context that are relevant in multiple contexts. Blessings!

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  10. I'm excited that you're doing this and I'm looking forward to reading about your experiences. I'm a UU seminary student at Starr King in the SF Bay Area and I'm a firm believer in the clerical collar as a mark of office. After I finish school I might try to reproduce your experiment here in the bay area to compare and contrast my experience with yours. I'm curious if the reactions you get in the bible belt are different than the reactions I would get here on the "left coast". (For good or bad.)

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  11. Tamara, this is so affirming. I so admire your loving boldness. I know I haven't told you in a while, but you really do rock … Thanks for reminding us to acknowledge our power and broadcast to our communities that we have been called to holy service.

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  12. I came across this blog in the UUA Multicultural Newsletter and I'm very excited to follow your blog throughout this experiment. Although I am a member of a UU congregation in New Orleans I often listen to your congregation’s sermons on YouTube. As a queer woman and one discerning UU ministry at this time, I have found it more difficult to "come out" as a religious person and one who wants to go into ministry. I was much more accepted by family and friends when I came out as gay. There was a lot more hesitation and questions when I "came out" as UU ministry bound. Oh the paradox. P.S. I'll be looking forward to the book. ; )

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  13. I stumbled across your blog while looking for information about wearing a collar as a UU. I entered seminary determined I would never wear one, would never want to. That's changed as I've realized the times where I might want to be easily recognized as a minister to the broader public. This summer I'm serving a congregation as their preaching fellow and there's a community event late in the summer at which I'm thinking I would like to be recognizable as a minister and so I am thinking about purchasing my first collar. (As an aside, since you noted you first wore a collar in CPE, do you know if there are any expectations about Aspirants wearing collars? I haven't found anything in writing but wasn't sure if there might be an unwritten standard.)

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