Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A white guy in a kufi?

I’m wearing the kufi and the kente fabric in my role as the griot in our civil rights-themed Vacation Bible School, On the Move: God’s Grace from Place to Place. A griot is a traditional storyteller, and in our curriculum, he introduces the day during the opening gathering time and tells the Bible story. The curriculum suggested that the griot wear traditional African garb.

Our education committee thought that would be fun; I was a bit uncomfortable. As a non-African, it feels weird to be wearing ethnic attire from a culture that isn’t mine. I feel like I would be usurping somebody else’s heritage. My thoughts took me back to a conversation on blogger PeaceBang’s site from a few years ago about white pastors wearing multicultural stoles. I felt uneasy, but thought it might be a good opportunity for my congregation to learn about other cultures.

When I was in Chicago last month, I stopped by an African store, wanting to see if there might be anything appropriate for me to wear at VBS. I nervously explained my situation to the woman at the store: “I’m a white pastor of a mostly white congregation, and we’re doing a Vacation Bible School with a civil rights theme. I know that seems odd, but I think it’s really important for us to learn some of these stories. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Our curriculum suggests that I wear African garb, and I feel uncomfortable doing it because I’m not African. What do you think?”

She said, “Oh, Pastor, don’t worry. You know Father Pfleger, right? Father Pfleger wears kente all the time. As long you’re trying to stop racism, it’s all right. Go ahead, and try on this one.” I tried on the kufi that I’m wearing in the picture. I do know who Michael Pfleger is, but I am definitely not Father Pfleger. Though I’ve never met him nor attended Mass at his parish, he is a well-known figure in Chicago. As the white pastor of a mostly African American Roman Catholic parish, he has been an outspoken leader about justice issues in Chicago and beyond. With over forty years of ministry in African American communities, he has the credibility to pull it off. I don’t.

Nevertheless, I’m wearing it anyway. I realize that I am pushing the boundary toward taking another’s culture, but I also see it as an opportunity for learning and conversation. I know a mostly white congregation learning about civil rights seems unusual, but it shouldn’t be. African American history is American history. I love that our children are learning about heroes of faith and justice that they might not learn about in school (we do live in Texas). I love that we're combining faith and justice. We’re also starting to learn that justice is not just a race issue. I long for the day when there is no injustice for us to learn about.


  1. Wear it brother Paul! I don't believe culture is something that proud cultures typically hold up and keep to themselves, nor is language. After all, we're all sons and daughters of Adam!

  2. Paul,as long as you acknowledge civil rights, ethnic heritage and teach a *world* view, you will not only teach, you will LEARN. Trust me, I know. (Your co-student at WHS, and current African American Studies teacher at a 99% Af-Am school in Wash, DC.) Happy learning! Jenn Osen-Foss