A young woman asked whether the seat next to me in the Amtrak car was taken. I responded “no” and we began a bit of smalltalk. We shared an interest in travel, I for missionary work and she for photos. I assumed she was a photographer, but she denied it. A few moments later she broke the awkward silence to confide that she was an adult film star. She pulled out her smartphone to show off her work, but I insisted upon taking her word for it. As our chat continued, I could not help noting that her voice was unusually deep for a young lady. She no doubt was suffering from a cold or a bad smoking habit. She again denied it—and clarified that she was, more precisely, a transgender adult film star.
In a relatively empty train car, this hormonally-altered young man had chosen a seat beside the only passenger on board with a clerical collar. He knew that his life was distant from the Church’s anthropological and ethical vision, but something had urged him to sit and speak with a religious figure. I asked whether he ever felt used in a line of work that thrived on reducing bodies to commodities. He admitted that he did, but quickly added that he was using the men who consumed his product. I cautioned that this mutual objectification would leave both parties hollow, and I sensed that beneath his casual dismissal of my moral qualms, his own experience had already confirmed as much. I wondered out loud what his family thought. While he insisted that his family supported his unconventional career path, a tremor in his voice suggested he was looking for a bit more guidance from his parents than an encouraging pat on the back. I was, for a moment, a paternal challenge to a lifestyle no financial success could render dignified. It was an encounter that I would never have experienced had I been wearing more casual attire.
Penn Station was my late-Saturday-night introduction to the Big Apple. After two cancelled flights, a DC Metro track derailment, an extra shuttle bus, and an Amtrak train to New York, I was eager to settle into my home for the next two months. As I confusedly navigated my connection options in the sprawling transportation hub, a young woman approached and asked for my prayers and proceeded to detail the various trials and tribulations concerning which I should intercede for her. Just in case God should neglect her prayer for lack of sufficient information, she continued to share increasingly intimate details about her life.
I was on the phone during her entire narrative and did my best to assure the poor woman of my prayers so that I could return to my original conversation. I wanted to get home and did not need any nagging requests to prolong an already arduous journey. I had come to New York to work at a journal of religion and public life—but I was slow to realize that interruptions such as this were part of my ongoing commitment to inviting God into the public square. With whom else but a distinctly clad minister of God would this woman so readily recount her most personal of struggles?
A week later, after a spending over six hours discussing classic texts on love and friendship at the First Things Intellectual Retreat, I was looking forward to a silent train ride back home. Instead, an aerialist train companion took a break from a verbal dispute with her boyfriend to ask about my path to the priesthood. The yoga she practiced for her profession had drawn her from the Christian faith of her youth to embrace Hindu doctrines and practices. The novelty of a collared seminarian seated before her provided the opportunity to reconnect with a forgotten tradition. Coming from circles where spirituality meant syncretistic dabblings in various schools, she found that conversation with a vowed religious opened for her the prospect of a life-commitment to a definitive faith and ethos.
These and other similar encounters reminded me that my mission of ensuring religion’s place in the public square is not restricted to office hours at First Things. In cosmopolitan cities accustomed to fantastic fashion, the standard black dress shirt and white collar still garner attention. Some revile the garb as the uniform of a hateful institution bent on discrimination and suppression. Others greet the outfit with a warmth uncharacteristic of fast-paced cities. Many lack the religious culture or interest to express an opinion strongly positive or negative, but at least find the novelty intriguing.
No matter the reaction or the summer heat, I have never regretted wearing clerical garb publicly. For some, my unexpected presence provides a rare opportunity to discuss God’s place in daily life. The clothing guarantees no particular degree of personal holiness. However, such apparel does constantly recall a specific commitment to God in a life directed toward Christian perfection in charity. Moreover, distinctive dress continues to evoke the divine for those starving for the sacred.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.