when you see the naked, to cover them…
Reflection by The Rev. Michelle Boomgaard
My seminary was really a series of buildings, connected by long halls, with the chapel right in the middle (and the library underneath). The buildings had been separate once, and the heating system never quite adapted. By late fall, we struggled to figure out what to wear to class. What would be appropriate for the weather outside, the cold in one large lecture hall, the heat in a small seminar room? Temperatures could vary by ten degrees from one room to the next. Many of the women began to wear long shawls to class – stylish accessories that also allowed them to adapt to the changing temperatures they encountered.
One semester, I helped arrange for a panel of speakers on some contemporary issues. I helped one of them settle into guest accommodations, and gave her a brief tour of the seminary. She was dressed in dark grey slacks, and a stylish teal sweater, with a long paisley shawl draped over one shoulder. I joked that – despite never having visited a seminary – she had picked up our dress code. Of course, there was no such thing. Nonetheless, she seemed to fit in as we explored the campus.
That evening, I realized the shawl had served another purpose. I had noticed earlier that day that our guest used one hand exclusively, but had not thought anything of it. Now she was seated at the end of a table. I could see her other hand was misshapen. As we prepared to begin our program, the speaker fidgeted with her shawl, carefully tucking it around the arm as it lay on her lap. I don’t know if our speaker was embarrassed or ashamed of this imperfection, but the shawl no doubt helped avoid a lot of questions. With her accessories in place, the woman exuded calm confidence.
Our clothes do so much. Even a simple shawl can serve to hide embarrassment, offer modesty, convey belonging to a social group, enhance our self-image, and keep off the chill. If one accessory does all that, how much more does an entire outfit do!
If someone were moving into your community, would they have the clothes they need?
What would they need for the weather and environment?
What would they need to fit in?
And, how might the clothes they wear offer them dignity, or self-esteem? What can we do to provide all those things, when we offer to clothe our neighbors?
The Rev. Michelle Boomgaard has served as priest-in-charge of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, West Virginia since October. The daughter of immigrants, Michelle grew up outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. She earned a PhD and taught comparative politics and international relations at the college level before beginning seminary. Before coming to Charleston, Michelle served as rector of a parish in Ontario, Canada.
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