[Printed in the April 2014 edition of the Spirit, the print magazine of the Diocese of West Missouri]
In “The Campaign,” one of the main characters, Marty Huggins (played by Zach Galifianakis), jokes with his disinterested father about a “giraffe wearing high-heels.” “I thought to myself, who thinks of this stuff,” Marty chortles while his father looks on disapprovingly.
There are just some images that are humorous, or at least odd. It struck me a few weeks ago during an early morning flight from Kansas City to Atlanta that someone might look at me as “odd.” To be fair, it is my own projection so that assertion probably says more about me than anyone else. There I was, sitting in my aisle seat wearing a full black suit (because it is easier to travel in a suit than pack one) and Roman collar, admiring LeBron James’ $4,200 suit in the latest issue of GQ magazine on my Nexus Tablet. Any of those things separately would be relatively normal (as normal as priesthood gets); but as an amalgam, they just strike me as different and odd, like a “giraffe wearing high-heels.”
I think it struck me as odd because it’s not what I think of when I think priest. Flying? Yes. Wearing black? Yes, Mother Julia Gatta would have it no other way. Tablet? Eh… maybe. Reading GQ? No. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I am just saying that it’s not the first image one conjures up when one thinks about the word “priest.”
It occurred to me that perhaps this is what the world needs. No, I’m not saying every priest needs to go out and buy tablets or subscribe to “GQ Magazine.” What I am saying is that the nature of the priesthood in the modern world might be to be the “giraffe in high-heels,” tearing down the boundaries and images that have dominated this vocation for so long, and allowing others to see themselves as inhabiting the holy ministry.
It is no secret that I am from Atlanta, Georgia where we recently elected our first Black bishop, my mentor and friend The Rt. Rev. Robert Wright. I was sent to seminary by the largest and fastest growing historically Black Episcopal parish in the nation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. From the very beginning of my life in the Episcopal Church, I was privileged to be surrounded by images of priesthood and vocation that reflected my lived reality as a Black man.
It’s also no secret that as of today I am the only Episcopal priest of color actively serving in this diocese. When I tell people what I do for a living, they often look at me sideways, as if to say “you’re Black… and Episco-what?” They see me as a “giraffe in high-heels.” When Absalom Jones was made the first Black priest in this Church, many viewed him as a contradiction-in-terms, a “giraffe in high-heels.”
To be clear, this is not a missive about expanding Black vocations, or female vocations, or LGBTQ vocations, or [insert under-represented demographic here] vocations. This is actually not about vocations. This is about the way that our churches create images that either allow everyone to “eat at the welcome table” or to be “sent away empty.”
After posting one of my sermons to my blog, a reader noted that I mixed my pronouns when referring to God. In one sentence I referred to God as “she” and then I flipped around and referred to God as “he.” This struck him as odd, as a “giraffe in high-heels.” I politely explained to the reader that God is neither male nor female, and both male and female, and how we refer to God in public space can either invite people closer into relationship to God or become a barrier preventing relationship.
This is often hard to hear in a Church were the dominant image for God is still “Father” and where Jesus and the disciples are more often than not depicted looking more like the Thor and Captain America than Palestinian Jews. It’s worth asking whether or not our images and language are making visitors and spiritual pilgrims feel like “giraffes in high-heels.”
While presenting at the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes Conference last week, the Reverend Joshua Case (Deacon – Holy Innocent’s, Atlanta) challenged us to broaden our conceptualizations of social media beyond simply electronic social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.). He defined social media as “any technology that creates a social culture around it.” That includes prayer books, pipe organs, Bibles, and the dreaded church bulletin.
What kind of communities are we gathering around our images and language? Better yet, what kinds of communities are kept from gathering because of our sometimes die-hard allegiance to narrow language and myopic images? Are we more committed to the maintenance of an image or the gathering of a community? I seem to remember somewhere a commandment against “graven” or static images.
I think these are questions worth asking. Meanwhile, I’m willing to shoulder the cross of being a “giraffe in high-heels” because I know that to someone I am creating space to broaden the conversation and to draw the circle wider, and to others, well at least my heels are fierce. +
The Rev’d. Marcus Halley is Associate Priest for Young Adults & Families at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City.