Every once in a while, a book crosses my desk and smacks me upside the head with a voice that I can’t simply read and put away. This happened to me recently with the fantastic new book Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job by my friend (and fellow Rwanda traveler) Kerry Weber. In a recent endorsement of Kerry’s book, I said:
“If ‘change the world’ is on your to do list, then Mercy in the City should be on your reading list. Kerry Weber’s work is instructive, inspirational, filled with heart, and — perhaps most importantly — destined to rock your world. If you’ve ever desired to be Christ to those in need, but didn’t quite know how to make it happen in the context of a busy schedule, this is the book for you!”
Today, I’m happy to share a brief excerpt from this fantastic book. And over at my Patheos blog, you can read my full interview with Kerry. And if you really want more and you live anywhere near Chicopee, MA, consider joining us in April for an awesome women’s conference. But before that, go read this book! You can thank me in person while you’re having Kerry sign your copy!
Mercy in the City
I live in New York City, arguably the fashion capital of the world, but most days I couldn’t care less about that aspect of the city. It’s not that I don’t try to dress appropriately or, on occasion, fashionably; it’s just that my interpretation of “fashionable” has sometimes not quite been in sync with the mainstream tastes.
To be fair, I didn’t have to think about it too much growing up. At age five I donned a buttondown shirt and plaid skirt and wore some approximation of that for the next thirteen years of parochial school. My high school was perhaps the only one in America at which girls got in trouble for wearing their skirts too long. I don’t know how or when the style began, but the favored way to wear the grey wool skirts was as close to your ankles as possible.
We were not allowed to wear printed T-shirts beneath our blouses, nor were we allowed to wear blouses that didn’t bear the high school logo. No flip-flops, sneakers, bandanas, or hats. We expressed our originality mostly through socks and, in my case, unusual homemade jewelry, such as necklaces made from buttons or hair bows that sang Christmas carols.
Wearing uniforms was kind of awesome, as it meant never having to worry about what you were wearing in the morning, and never having to do back-to-school shopping. With such limited choices, I didn’t worry much about wearing the wrong thing. Of course, I worried about a host of other things instead, just not clothes. I liked that the skirts were warm in the winter, although the same property held for summer, which I liked less.
Despite my love of the uniform, I still joined my classmates in longing for the one or two days a year when we were allowed a dress-down day. My senior year, I was slightly more rebellious—or at least quirky. A friend and I decided that we would buy the dress-down day pass (money went to a charity) and then break every uniform rule possible. And there would be nothing anyone could do about it. (This is about as rebellious as I got. I will not be writing a scandalous tell-all about my adolescence anytime soon.) So on went the tie-dye T-shirt beneath the non-sanctioned, white oxford blouse (for extra tie-dye visibility); on went the bandana and the flip-flops; and off we went to saunter around the school. I’m fairly certain most people didn’t actually notice.
As original as New York is, certain neighborhoods or groups of people still seem to stick to an unofficial uniform. The hipsters in skinny jeans and sunglasses. The pencil skirts in Midtown. And it’s a safe bet that on nearly any street in Manhattan, you’ll see someone dressed in all black. I struggle with how much attention I should devote to choosing what I wear each day. If given a choice, I’ll most often be in jeans and a T-shirt. At the same time it’s a common belief that what we wear is an outward sign of the respect we have for others and even how we want to represent ourselves to others. (So my message, I guess, would be this: I want to be comfortable.)
It’s undeniable that when I do dress up, when I wear a gown or a business suit, I feel a bit different somehow. Clothes can send a powerful symbol. St. Francis stripped off his own clothes to make a statement, to symbolically shed the life he planned to leave behind. Many women religious and clergy wear habits so that they might distinguish their life choice and be easily identified, so that people might seek them out for guidance or feel safe, as fellow passengers on an airplane. Other nuns and priests dress more like laypeople in an effort to make people comfortable and to seem less like the “other.”
Clothes matter, and yet we can’t be too attached to them. We have to be willing to separate who we are from what we wear. Christ said that if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt as well. Some interpretations of this teaching argue that this is a way to embarrass the other person, that you’d end up naked before them, which, in Jesus’ time, would have been more shameful for them than for you. But it also fits with Jesus’ message that we have to be willing to give what we have, and sometimes to give to a point of discomfort.
Despite my lack of interest in fashion, sometimes I still have trouble cleaning out my closet when it gets too full. It’s easy to come up with excuses to keep things: It’s not like I am always buying new clothes, I think. Perhaps it is OK to hang on to my extra clothes, as long as they are older or inexpensive.
During high school we were told—warned really—that when we left the school grounds in our uniforms, when we wore them at a local restaurant after school or while on a field trip, we were representing Cathedral High School, that how we behaved while wearing these uniforms represented the larger group of students. Which makes me wonder: what about the clothes I don’t wear, but still hold on to; what do they say about me?
In Colossians, we’re told to clothe ourselves with love, over everything else, over whatever styles we’re wearing, over whatever ways we’re seeking to define or distinguish ourselves. Like a less itchy and less tangible version of a Catholic school uniform, this love unites us. And the way we wear that love represents the larger group of Christians. It is up to each of us to make it unique in the way we live out that love—the spiritual version of wearing goofy socks and homemade jewelry—but this love must have at its core the same basic pieces. “They will know we are Christians by our Love,” we are told. But only if we wear it well.
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Copyright 2014 Lisa M. Hendey