Earlier this fall, my husband I travelled to rural Pennsylvania for a gathering of the Nurturing Communities Project (NCP). The NCP is “an effort to connect experienced, established communities with younger and newer communities as a way of mutual encouragement and sharing of wisdom.”
The ubiquity of “community” in both secular and spiritual conversations is an index of how little true community most people have in their lives. My husband and I have already made fairly radical life choices for the sake of community, and we continue to strive for a form of life that offers hope in an atomized, lonely age.
The NCP drew representatives from intentional Christian communities around the nation. We met members of several Catholic Worker Houses, Jesus People, Koinonia Farm, and more. Our hosts were the Bruderhof–a community with nearly 100 years of experience sustaining a radical common life. The conference sessions were as thoughtful and provocative as the attendees: “Old Monastic Wisdom for New Monastic People,” “Raising Children in Community,” and others on racism and community, on the value of common work, on the importance of shared lament and celebration.
The conversations we had at NCP were in turns inspiring and sobering, challenging and encouraging. The common thread in all our conversations was a deep conviction that the Bible calls its people to a way of life the world doesn’t understand: life that is both intimate and generous, common and extraordinary, deeply rooted and therefore deeply hospitable to the poor. During the last session, as I looked around at the 200 or so men and women gathered, I noticed something curious: of all the women attending the NCP, I was one of only a handful with “normal” hair: almost all the other women were either wearing a head covering of some sort or sporting dreadlocks. In some ways these styles are quite different from one another: a Bruderhof woman might easily be mistaken for a conservative Mennonite or Hutterite, while a girl in dreadlocks might look more at home at a music festival.
What these diverse styles have in common, however, is that for the women who have chosen them, they serve as a sign, a visible marker of difference. For the women at the NCP, the difference they wished to announce was participation in a radical community: radical both in the literal sense of deep rootedness in the biblical witness, and also in the sense of a significant departure from our cultural norm.
For some of these communities, like the Bruderhof, dressing distinctively has a long (but complex) place in the story of their community. As one member has said, “I think a distinctive lifestyle calls for a distinctive dress. I love walking down the street or through an airport and have people see immediately that my life is something different” (Carmen Hinkey).
For others, like the members of the newly-formed Bloomington Catholic Worker House, common dress has grown out of their deepening sense of commitment to one another and to countercultural hospitality to the homeless. While the Bruderhof women tend to wear solid-color head-scarves and cotton jumpers or skirts in somewhat muted tones, the two women representing the Bloomington Catholic Worker wore dresses similar to a Mennonite or Amish “plain style,” but their solid-color garments were in vivid shades of purple or yellow.
Whether the women wore dreadlocks, simple scarves, or bright-but-modest dresses, they shared a similar story: community first, then shared and distinctive clothing. Their clothing choices did not come first from individual expression or concerns about modesty, but in their participation in a complex household, a community demanding real sacrifices and providing real resources.
I’ve been thinking about these women ever since I returned. What I observed at the NCP helped has helped make sense of a recent Bustle.com article on the success of Jewish and Muslim “modest fashion,” but the comparative failure of similar movements in Christian Fashion, such as the 2013 Christian Fashion Week. Reading the story, I couldn’t help but wonder if the failure of “Christian fashion” points to the fact that most American Christians do not participate in a common life radical enough sustain meaningfully distinctive forms of dress. Every creative person knows the paradox of boundaries: unlimited freedom can be paralyzing, but clear boundaries can inspire extraordinary work. I wonder if something similar might be happening in the Muslim and Jewish fashion movements. Not only can clear boundaries about modesty provide a bounded scope for creating interesting new fashions, I also wonder if conservative Muslim and Jewish communities–especially to the extent that they still feel like “outsiders” in many parts of America–are more coherent and robust. If so, then their distinctive dress guidelines would have a meaningful role in community life. I’d like to do more research here, and learn from Muslim and Jewish designers working within their faith communities.
Since my teens, I have been trying to parse why Christian conversations about modesty are so infuriating, and my working theory is that the conversations about dressing faithfully–a topic much larger than modesty alone–must come within larger conversations about what it means to be a contrast people. Many Christians seem to assume that there is a universal standard for female modesty, when, as the Bustle article points out, the Christian Scriptures give far less explicit guidance than Muslim or Jewish tradition regarding appropriate dress. The liberty we have as Christians can, ironically, hurt women in conversations about modesty, when teachers and preachers only speak in reaction to “breaches” of a standard women and girls should somehow intuit.
Because the Bible doesn’t give explicit guidance about hemline length (etc), we must work these questions out in each new season of human history, as trends, fashions, and besetting sins evolve. That’s well and good: but only if we are doing the same thing for all areas of life. As I told my husband once: if a man at church is going to tell me something about how to dress, he had better be in a meaningful, covenanted form of community with me. He had better be willing to let me question his decision to buy a new car, or to move his family cross country for the sake of a promotion. I wasn’t be facetious: I really do believe brothers and sisters in the faith should be involved in one another’s lives in these ways. It’s hard. It’s dangerous. It requires extraordinary grace and wisdom. But it is the witness we see in Scripture, especially in the tender, practical, messy letters among the early churches in the New Testament. It is the groundwork in community that makes risky hospitality possible.
I’m not planning to don dreadlocks or a headscarf, but I’ll admit that as I looked around at the gathered communities at the NCP, I was a little jealous. Their styles were not arbitrary markers of affiliation, but creative and meaningful signs of difference, borne from life in radical community.
Note: this entry is part of my ongoing quest to discern a better way to discuss modesty in churches, and a larger project to discover a Christian ethic of clothing. You can read more about this conversation in my earlier posts here and here.
Image source: David Ring, via Wikimedia Commons