During my time in seminary in the late ‘70’s, a priest came to the seminary community from Uganda. He was a refugee, one who had escaped with wife and family from the government of Idi Amin. In a sermon in the seminary chapel, he told this story.
A group of ladies at a parish of the Church of England had a successful fund raiser, and had several hundred pounds sterling to share. Knowing of the difficulties experienced by the Church of Uganda under the Amin regime, they wrote to a Ugandan bishop of their desire to help. “What can we send that would help you most? Would you like altar ware or linens? Prayer Books or Bibles or vestments? What would help you most?”
He answered, “Beloved ladies, sisters in Christ, bless you for your generosity. We need all those things you mention; but more than these, we need clergy shirts and collars. You see, when our people are being rounded up by the police, not knowing whether they will live to see the dawn, they want to know that their clergy are there with them.”
Since my ordination I have always worn clericals when working, reflecting on this story. That has been particularly true of my work in hospitals. The fears at the bedside are not of bullets and crocodiles; but they are real enough nonetheless. When I walk the floors, and especially in the midst of crisis, I want it clear that someone is there to reflect the love and concern of God in that trouble. Sometimes the symbol isn’t recognized. Sometimes it is recognized, but represents for those present challenge rather than comfort. I have to deal with those feelings, certainly. As I often say, if God is The Boss and my colleagues in congregations are in Sales, then I’m in Maintenance; and dealing with those feelings is also part of my ministry.
Now, am I a priest without my clericals? Of course. And I don’t wear them to sleep or to mow the lawn. But if I’m in the hospital to work, I have clericals on. There, while threats are different and the outcomes much more hopeful, the fears of death and loss remain. In the midst of those crises, I want patients, families, and staff to know that someone is with them whose purpose is to reflect the presence and compassion of God whatever may come.