Food for Thought-Martin Luther King’s Clerical Robe

mlk robe w sash

I read an article by one of my colleagues in Tennessee concerning preaching attire. He always preaches in jeans. I’ve done the same, usually wearing a tie, blazer, or clerical shirt with my Levis. More often than not, I wear a preaching robe or black cassock. There are times when I don’t want to wear a robe and other times when I enjoy donning the symbol of my office and role in the church. In those moments of doubt and indifference, when questions pop into my mind about how this black gown is perceived by my congregation that I remember; Brother Martin wore a robe.

It’s difficult to find pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King preaching when he’s not wearing a robe or stole. Whether in the pulpit of his father’s church or his own congregation in Alabama, Martin can be seen wearing his preaching robe and stole. In a day and time when African-Americans were subject to ridicule and scorn, King dressed in a way that placed him on a level with his white colleagues. He was not any less a human being or religious professional than white clergy. He had earned a degree from an accredited seminary. King studied preaching not only as a street corner practice but as the means which civilization had shared how God is revealed for centuries. The robe, a visible sign of an inward calling, helped to set him apart as a voice for those who had no means of being heard. White and black, racist and non-racist all knew what the robe meant.

Martin Luther King was a man of the cloth. What he said, what he preached, was all framed by the Bible he carried and the God he believed in. When you put on that robe, it’s a humbling experience. You realize you’re representing more than yourself; you’re speaking the words you believe God wants you to say. Wearing the robe means you take the task of preaching seriously. Martin Luther King believed in meeting the challenges he faced because those challenges were shared by his entire community. When I don my robe, I am to take my calling seriously because my congregation and I both share struggles on a common journey of faith. The robe is one way preachers ask their congregations to follow them on this path.

So this week, not because of Martin or for Martin; will I wear my robe. I’m wearing my robe because Martin and I are preachers and that’s just what we do.


3 thoughts on “Food for Thought-Martin Luther King’s Clerical Robe

  1. You have me realizing (a disquieting insight, actually) that I can preach in jeans or my Amish broadfalls and be accepted, in part because I’m white. There’s no assumption I’ve come in off the street, as it were.
    Actually, in my circles the robe would be off-putting, an air or affection or even presumption.
    In contrast, when you don your robe, your community of faith (congregation) is placing the vestment on your shoulders. It is their blessing and invocation for full faithfulness on your part. In your circle, you are not placed apart (as the minister was in the church of my youth or is in most congregations) but rather enfolded into its core. Think of the practice of laying-on-hands.
    That, by the way, bestows a lot of authority on you as you deal with the wider public. People sense it, no matter what you’re wearing.
    You also have me remembering a piece by an Episcopal priest who maintained use of the clerical collar, even as some people on the street would accuse him of being a Roman Catholic pedophile. Here he was, married with children. He told of being in public one day when a stranger frantically pleaded with him to provide last rites to a seriously injured person — which he did, even though it wasn’t part of his denomination’s practice. As he finished, a man in a golfing shirt came up and thanked him. It was a Roman Catholic priest, essentially incognito. So much for bearing witness.
    Whatever the course, it should be humbling, as you say.


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