June 12, 2014

Fringe Religious Groups and What We Wear - a guest post by Sarah Duggan

Coming soon to a field trip near you
One of the great perks of my historic site visitor center job last year was the people watching. Every day was a parade of different groups: family reunions in matching shirts, busloads of 8th graders, Buddhist monks, all manner of foreign military officers, middle-aged European couples in matching sweaters, Portuguese medical students in capes (??), Asian tour groups following their guide waving an umbrella, Congressional interns in questionable "businesswear." My favorites, though, were the fringe religious groups whose outfits gave them away. I can't help it, I am an American religion nerd. Mennonite head coverings, Pentecostal long denim skirts and towering hairdos, or Orthodox Jewish prayer shawls and yarmulkes made me positively giddy when they came through the door.

Why did I want to run up and become BFFs with these people who followed strict dress codes? Was it because they have big families like mine? Or because I knew I could speak their scriptural language to some degree? I think the main reason is how they wear their faith on their sleeves, literally. It warms my heart to see people unafraid to wordlessly advertise that they don't quite fit in with contemporary American culture. And, let's be honest, it's also good to know that no matter how counter-cultural my Catholicism is, there is always someone out there with stricter rules and weirder dress codes to follow.

When I greeted visitors to the US Capitol I was supposed to be bipartisan and impartial for visitors. You couldn't see my scapular or miraculous medal under my uniform blouse. Most visitors didn't understand my enthusiasm for statues of Jesuit missionaries. For a while I tried not to come on too strong. But after three people assumed I was Jewish, I figured I needed to come clean. (Happens all the time; it's the hair and Levite maiden name). News flash: my ancestry is 75% shiksha and have been Catholic my entire life.

Every time I define my religious affiliation for colleagues, I get very cautious about how my actions reflect on my religion. Am I kind enough, joyful enough? I worry about this in Catholic circles too. My family goes to a Latin Novus Ordo Mass and I know obscure saint trivia like the back of my hand. Still, calling myself a "Trad" feels wrong - I like too many "guitar Mass" folk hymns for that. If I try wearing a veil to Mass will people assume I disapprove of feminism? How will people know what I believe? How should I label myself?

This is silly, really. If you believe something, it will show. When I was engaged I had to gently explain to curious colleagues that, no, my fiance and I weren't going to "get a place together" until we were married. Church events have come up when discussing weekend plans. Heck, I watched live streaming of last year's habemus papam announcement in a computer lab surrounded by docents. I've had great conversations with Jewish and Muslim coworkers about what their faith means to them. I've explained Latin Mass to a lapsed Catholic and compared fasting practices with an Evangelical. Over the years non-Catholic colleagues have congratulated me on new saints and asked me what I think of new popes.

Otherwise I don't butt to inform people that I disagree with their morality. If people are very set in their opinions, it's not worth instigating a water cooler brawl over assisted suicide or abortion in cases of rape. When you work at a museum the general public provides more than enough encounters with opinionated, belligerent people. My prayer is that I can represent well the communion of Saints to which I belong and start some honest dialogue when the opportunity arises. I want to leave people with the impression that I am trustworthy, principled and kind. Maybe then I can help change the too-common impression that the Catholic Church is out to dispense control, not love.

Saints of the British Isles

*H/T to the hilarious Tumblr blog of that name.

Sarah is a museum staffer obsessed with finding old churches, Bible movies, and decent gluten-free baked goods. She blogs at Catholic History Nerd. A displaced Virginian, she currently resides in the NYC area with her historian husband.


  1. I really enjoyed this post! Thanks, Sarah!

  2. I wish there was a more Catholic "uniform" - I would like to be more readily identified as Catholic, especially since I feel I sort of serve as a missionary here in the South. I have noticed that people with check out my Miraculous Medal or the Rosary in my van but I kind of wish we had something like the Mennonites.

  3. Karyn, I understand that wish too, I feel the same way sometimes! I do think a miraculous medal or crucifix will get you fairly well pegged as a Catholic a lot of times. I know it does for me. And just general modest clothing, but modern modest. Like Mormons, they don't have an obvious dress code but after awhile you start to realize who is Mormon around you :) The subtle higher-than-normal necklines, the happy smile. I think we Catholics can wear our faith on the outside with similar subtle signs unique to us.

    Loved this post by the way Sarah!