Confession: This summer, I became known as “the underwear lady.”
700 people at round tables in a banquet room in Orlando, Florida. The tables are tastefully decorated with white tablecloths, seeds from around the country, and green and blue ribbons that matched the event logo projected on five giant screens. Muggy day outside, chilly air conditioning inside. 75% of the room are vowed Sisters of St Joseph, the rest are partners committed to their ministry of reconciliation between neighbors, and with God.
Each table is surrounded by 7-8 people mixed from congregations across the United States, with a few international partners sprinkled in, for the 50th anniversary CSSJ Federation Event.
They are all looking at a microphone set up in the middle of the room.
“Hi, I’m Meagen, an Associate from Cleveland, Ohio. I want to talk to you about underwear.”
We have just looked together at “a series of pictures” from Sister Mary Johnson, SND. As a sociologist, she used charts to describe the current generation of Roman Catholics in the U.S., particularly religious sisters.
How can we prepare ourselves to receive our new reality?
I propose we buy underwear.
Before I explain why, I should start with some history that I took for granted my audience already knew (and most of them lived).
Once upon a time, religious congregations bought underwear for all their members. Not just underwear… all their clothes! Habits were mandated.
But at this year’s U.S. Federation Event, we had 700 Sisters and partners who all bought clothes separately. I asked myself: How much buying power could we have by banding together again?
And would this room of religious sisters be willing? Some would consider such a move as “going backwards” towards an era of top-down conformity, into “uniforms” that unnecessarily separated Sisters from those they served.
After Sr Mary’s presentation on the history, we were challenged by panelist (and my friend) Erin McDonald, CSJ to pursue “holy recklessness” and follow the Holy Spirit into new places.
To take it a step further, I think some of those “new places” may mean revisiting “old places” with new eyes. Sr Mary Johnson also challenged the audience to look at “traditional” practices in fresh ways…through the perspective of young adults.
Let’s take habits: Most of the Sisters of St Joseph do not wear them, and are not shy about explaining why. Senior sisters describe the physical and emotional discomfort caused by the layers of garb. They joke about their challenges with the once-a-year cleaning and weekly starching, often with a bitter laughter.
But many younger adults consider habits and other “traditional” liturgical garb as a way to serve in a visible way. One young habit-wearing woman at the conference wore a light and functional utili-skirt, pockets and all. Many young Christians and Catholics don’t want to blend in…we want to embrace the countercultural challenge of the Gospel! For some, they can do this in a very vidible way by wearing a habit. Unfortunately, the younger generation’s “return to the habit” is used by some commentators as a threat to chastise older sisters for their enthusiastic embrace of the reforms of Vatican II and shedding “the veil.”
In the 1970s, our now-senior sisters embraced their “active” vocation when asked to research and return to their roots. Sisters of St Joseph are called to the streets! Their mission is to spread out and “divide the city,” to love the dear neighbor without distinction, to promote union of neighbor with God, and reconciliation of neighbor with neighbor.
You can see the change in clothing, along with the recovery of the unique SSJ mission and spirituality, in the 50 year retrospective video played at the closing banquet:
Our panelists pointed out that the charism of unity does not necessarily mean uniformity. But…they challenged the audience to give ourselves permission to be visible when it’s appropriate. We don’t have to erase our differences to embrace the dear neighbor.
“Please don’t tell me you don’t see color when you look at me,” asked the panelist Meyer Chambers. “My mother and father gave me this beautiful color.”
To rephrase Meyer’s words…it was Jesus and the Holy Spirit that gave the Sisters their beautiful vows and charism! Listening to the entering generation of women religious, the SSJs are being challenged to stand out at times, especially to be loud and proud about the countercultural nature of their vows. Religious women combat society’s worship of money, sex, and power with the threefold vows of poverty (simple living), chastity, and obedience (mutual self-giving). That’s pretty cool!
“Women religious…are being challenged…to be loud and proud about the countercultural nature of their vows.”
Guess what, Sisters of St Joseph! I want to see your beautiful vocation when I look at you! It’s a gift from God. And when I see another partner in mission, I want to see a connection. Visibility, whether it is from the color of your skin or the clothes you wear, does not have to be uncomfortable…if it is a sign of relationship and connection.
In the spirit of unity, how do we embrace both realities? How do we encourage a new generation of Sisters and Associates, many of whom feel called to be more visible? Who see themselves as committing to a countercultural community? Who long for justice, prayer…and comfortable clothes?
My idea is simple: Let us pursue justice by paying attention to our clothes.
Let’s use our buying power to promote fair labor and sustainable materials! Let’s promote our countercultural charism of unity by branding ourselves at the same time.
It’s easier these days to find fair trade gifts, coffee, and t-shirts… but what about everyday purchases like underwear? What about church clothes? I am a lector at my parish, and would love to wear a dress or business casual in liturgical colors when I read. I have yet to find a simple, appropriate green dress that I am also sure is made with fair labor and sustainable material. Or a fair trade, feminine, purple polo shirt!
That’s the long form version of my mildly silly, hopefully practical, and perhaps bigger-than-my-britches idea. Someone called it “Sisters’ Secret: Victoria’s Got Nothing on Us!”
“Let’s use our buying power to promote fair labor and sustainable materials!”
My assigned small group, Table 56, laughed appreciatively and encouraged me to share at the open mic. (Look for “undie 56” in my upcoming clothing line! Just kidding) I tried to briefly suggest to 700 people that we should make our charism visible by branding ourselves with fair trade, eco-friendly clothing.
I suggested taking the lovely swirling blue and green logo for the 50th anniversary Federation event as branding, and to allow partners in ministry like myself to identify ourselves as committed to the SSJ mission. But we probably need to ensure that the Sisters can maintain their unique identity, to be loud and proud about their vows. Because vows are special and valuable for all of us.
I was not so eloquent at the mic as I’ve had the time to be in this article. 700 people in the banquet hall quietly, politely, looked at me blankly, many of them wondering why I was still at the mic talking about underwear. So I quietly, politely, went back to my table.
But that’s not the end!
In line for dinner, I was approached by someone who was told she had to talk to me. She’s in charge of creating a social enterprise for clothing manufacturing for the Sisters of St Joseph in Concordia, Kansas. They are currently teaching local, underemployed women to sew (they’re starting with scrubs). Next step is to teach their job seekers sewing manufacturing, to be eligible for jobs in local factories. The third stage will be to develop their own facility to employ their graduates, and are talking to some of the health systems run by the Sisters about selling scrubs in bulk.
Adult literacy, workforce development, fair labor, and faith-based social justice, all in one place! I love the Sisters of St Joseph!
See how this stuff all intersects?
By day 3 of the conference, everybody was talking about labor trafficking, and how to promote fair food in solidarity with workers.
Throughout the conference, more people in conversations shared their ideas, suggestions, and stories with me. Some funny clips:
- “The Holy Sock”: when you do good deeds, don’t let the left foot know what your right foot is doing!
- Lace-making retreats bring folks back to the Sisters’ roots as contemplative lace-makers… maybe a lace underwear retreat should be next?!
- A Sister in West Virginia is advocating for pilots to grow hemp to repair the land after strip mining. She is excited about (agricultural) hemp because it requires fewer resources than cotton.
Table 56 kept returning to the underwear idea. By the end of our event, the hilarious and wide-ranging possibilities for eco-friendly, fair labor, and branded clothing was spreading. The more we talked, the more the idea made sense! Well, maybe not to all 700 attendees, but to several dozen people, at least. Maybe you are one of them?
Now that you want to pay more attention to your everyday clothes, what can you do about it?
[Quick links: CSSJ Federation Event 2016, Event Banquet Video, Esperanza Threads, PACT women’s apparel, Fundraise with Spreadshirt, CIW’s Fair Food Shirts, Cruelty Free Clothing Guide]
A few suggestions:
Show support for Cleveland with Esperanza Threads!
You can get your Cleveland skyline t-shirt, show your love for Cleveland sports, or purchase a soft, cotton meditation robe. Esperanza Threads teaches employability and sewing skills and sells comfortable, organic cotton products. Since 2010, they have worked with Migration and Refugee Services to help new residents learn a trade.
Personally, I’m in the market for some new towels, and look forward to buying from Esperanza Threads.
Buy fair trade, organic cotton clothes from PACT
PACT is the only brand on Amazon I could find with consistently organic and fair trade cotton products. Note: links to Amazon are through the affiliate program.
They make socks, underwear, shirts, leggings, hoodies, and even a super-soft maxi dress. If you find this dress in forest green (for ordinary time), let me know. I’ll buy six!
Brand YOUR Religious Community or Social Enterprise with Spreadshirt
Coalition for Immokalee Workers promote their Fair Food campaign (more on that later) with an online t-shirt store through Spreadshirt. Since promoting fair labor is their mission, I tend to trust their judgment that at the shirts on their site meet their fair labor requirements. They offer several colors, but only the organic cotton and American Apparel tee shirts. I am curious to hear their appraisal of the other products offered by Spreadshirt.
So how can you get started? First, work with your skilled artists to create your branding logos and icons. Upload your artwork, and let Spreadshirt manage the money, production & shipping for you!
Spreadshirt also offers a responsibility statement that you can use to start discussions with your marketing/branding team.
Check Out the Guide to Cruelty-Free Clothing… and Those Who Aren’t
One Green Planet’s guide includes Esperanza Threads, and a whole lot more. Whether you are printing t-shirts for your sports team or shopping for a high class gala, you can find something in your size and price range on this list.
But what I really like is their list of those who should be added.
This week really drove home the power of consumer pressure in bringing about change. Years ago, I had heard that Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) had a “boot the Bell” campaign. They convinced college students to stop buying from Taco Bell until the fast food chain agreed to purchase their tomatoes from fair labor farms. I also heard for many years that Taco Bell was dismissive and resistant.
What hadn’t made it back into my news feed was that eventually Taco Bell and their parent company, YUM! Foods, realized they were losing tens of thousands of dollars a year from a generation of boycotting students and graduates.
They agreed to participate in the Fair Foods program! CIW won! The Fair Food label now represents an award-winning workplace monitoring program that insures workers receive the “one penny more” bonus from participating purchasers and just working conditions. CIW is hoping to branch into strawberries and peppers next. They’re even in WalMart!
But WalMart is NOT on the list for sweat free clothing. And unfortunately, Fair Food tomatoes are not yet sold in ALDI, Giant Eagle, Wendy’s, or any number of stores where I have shopped and worked. We have work to do with our dollars!
Thankfully, I have relationships with employees and managers that I can approach with the question: “Did you know we have an opportunity to support fair labor?”
Hitting the pocketbook helps, but it’s not enough. We need to respectfully discuss and advocate for fair labor for everyday products in every store. The Federation is also investing in the companies that need to change, like Ohio-based Wendy’s, then using their stakeholder power to get worker-advocates to the table. To change social structures, you need people on the inside willing to open the door and listen.
With this list of shopping choices, you can help! As the song croons, do you “like a girl who wears Abercrombie and Fitch?” Let her know that she can ask for better from her retailer. Our supply chains should be channels for mutual compassion and resource exchange, not chains of modern day slavery.
How will you be loud & proud about your vocation today?