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Photo Credit: Casey Carbone (2017)

A plastic tab when paired with cloth, can evoke the history of the Christian tradition. It can instill a sense of awe, disdain, indifference, or all three. These are the musings of a clerical collars journey and what it means to wear a visible symbol of the Christian faith.

In the city…

I flew out of church after leading a Sunday service and made my way down to the Princeton shuttle train. I was already running late to meet a friend in NYC to catch up and hang out. Not having much time I didn’t bother to change clothes and went wearing my clerical shirt and overcoat. I haven’t really worn my collar much in public, except when I go to churches to preach or lead special services. Sure I could have taken the collar out, but I figured that it would be an interesting experience and an opportunity to see how people in the “big city” react if at all.

As I sat on the train going from Princeton Junction to New York Penn Station nothing distinguished it from any other train ride. To me, it seemed like any other day. Maybe a few more people smile when they saw me and maybe some more quickly looked away thinking that I thought they skipped church. But at the end of the day nothing felt different, nothing felt out of place or extraordinary. That is up until the train ride I had to take back from New York Penn Station to Princeton. Then things began to get interesting and on a number of different levels.

After visiting my friend, going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and getting a bite to eat I was ready for the train to take me back to Princeton. If you haven’t taken an NJ transit train out of NYC you have to know that it’s a chaotic mess. As soon as they announce the platform it’s a mad rush with people pushing and shoving non-stop. So instead of pushing and shoving I waited and made my way to sit in one of the seats closer to the doors of the carriage (the place where people with bikes and bags sit).

Sitting next to me were three women and across from me was a woman and another man. For about 50% of the trip, they were talking about horoscopes and psychic reading, which I thought was amusing. They obviously weren’t bothered, or maybe didn’t care, that they were sitting next to someone who didn’t see meaningful merit in things like psychic readings or horoscopes. But nevertheless they continued, but it wasn’t their conversations or palm readings that were disheartening to me. There was something else that ate away at me as my feet crossed out from the train onto the platform in Princeton.

I don’t usually carry around cash in my pocket (robbers, thieves, and muggers be warned). I don’t like handling it, I don’t like the feel, and I don’t like to think about the germs that live on it. However, I do carry around a small bit of cash, because in Princeton not every store or coffee shop takes credit or debit. So keeping this in mind when what appeared to be a homeless person walked up to ask for money I took a $10 bill from my pocket and handed it to them. The three people who were sitting next me started to also look for some money, but the person left. And as soon as they left the woman who had been sitting across from me said, “That person is always asking for money. They’re some bum who can’t bother to get a real job. I can’t believe how many people they probably scam each day.”

Now, this woman wasn’t addressing me directly, but I could tell that her words were definitely pointed at me. But it made me stop to think about what I would have done if I wasn’t wearing a collar that day. If I was honest with myself I probably wouldn’t have given them anything. But that day there was something about wearing a visible sign of Christian charity that made it feel so natural to pull out some money and give it to someone who appeared to be in need. Apparently, this wasn’t the case for the woman who sat across from me, who felt that I had only reinforced this person’s “lazy lifestyle.”

I don’t know anything about the person who asked for money. I don’t know anything about the woman who felt the need to indirectly chastise me for giving money to someone who appeared in need. What I do know, is that there is a lack of charity both within and without. A charity that should feel like it is a part of us, but is all too often distant because of our own self-interests or concerns. A charity that should feel like it is a part of us, but instead of wearing it on our sleeves we hide it deep within our innermost sanctum. Because charity like this requires vulnerability. Vulnerability to say, “I am wrong,” “I’m part of the problem,” “I’m not as strong as I want to be.”

I don’t regret giving the homeless person a $10 bill. In fact, if I had to do it over I would have given them a $20 if I had one in my wallet. What I do regret is not asking the woman who sat across from me why she felt it was so egregious of me to give that person some money and to make the three woman sitting next to me feel foolish for trying to extend the fundamental essence of Christian charity. That is what I ultimately regret. But the takeaway for me is the wearing of Christian charity on my sleeves regardless of whether or not a collar is present around my neck.

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