It's the second time this has happened to me. The first time was at Arlington National Cemetery where I found it really important for a clergy person who is both a female and a stranger to show up in a collar. The collar - the small piece of plastic tucked carefully into the clergy blouse - made me easy to recognize and hard to miss.
But today - at the start of this day - I wanted to hide not behind the collar but I wanted to hide the collar - the entire marking of my identity. I wanted desperately for people not to see it.
I parked my car in the garage where I normally park - a few blocks from Mount Vernon Place. I got out of the car, gathered my belongings, and walked towards the elevators. I made my way upstairs, all the while being reminded that my vocation was no longer secret - everyone who looked at my neck noticed a collar - a collar that marked me as a pastor, or a priest, or a servant of some sorts.
I made my way through the building lobby and outside to the street where I noticed a group of teenagers standing outside of a nearby Hostel with eyes wide open. They were clearly gawking, and I quickly realized what had captured their attention. Three women stood opposite of them. Three women were across the street, and the three women were not dressed like everyone else walking the streets at 7:30 this morning. Everyone else had on enough clothes. These women had on tiny skirts that barely covered their bottoms. The women were clearly women of the streets - prostitutes gathering after a night's work.
I saw the women, and my heart felt like it was tearing again. My heart breaks every Sunday morning when I see these women gathering on a nearby corner. But, I have never seen them during the week - when so many other people are around. I watched them walk towards a hot dog stand and buy bottled drinks, and I crossed the street. My heart was breaking and yet I could not muster up any strength to go and approach them - to hand them my card and invite them in for a conversation - for a cup of tea - for an encouraging and supportive ear.
I then thought again about the collar I was wearing. As a pastor, my reaction should have been to walk up to them - to go out of my way to speak to them. But, I instead pulled my arm up around my neck, hoping no one would see me as most eyes gazed at this threesome. I wanted to hide the collar instead of hiding behind it. I had what I needed to be clearly marked to these women, and I choose instead to be marked like everyone else - to join the gawking crowds instead of being the one to stop and offer help.
I did it again later today - I covered my neck - at a stoplight when someone was asking for money while holding a cardboard sign that said, "hungry." If they see my collar, then I'll have to give money, I thought to myself.
I blew it. I missed two opportunities to be the kind of disciple, let alone the kind of pastor, I want to be.
I preached a sermon on being a risk taker yesterday - on being one who is filled with so much faith that they can do anything because God is leading them. Somehow this sermon escaped my memory today. Somehow my ability to take risks shrunk just as I tried to shrink in my seat or behind my arm instead of behind a collar that tells others how I have been set apart to do faithful work with and through the Holy Spirit.
I invite you to please pray for your pastor. Pray that I'll be a more faithful risk-taker. Pray that God will continue to break my heart every time I see these women until I am finally so overwhelmed that I know nothing other than to approach them and offer my card - an introduction. Pray for these women. And please pray for our church - that we can somehow find a way to be in relationship with them.
God, forgive me. God, help me. Help me be the one who heard what I preached yesterday - and then has the courage to follow. Amen.