Post Author: Ann Bonner-Stewart
For a long time, in my mind, pointe shoes were the only shoes that mattered. In high school, I tried brand after brand, make after make, looking for something that would flatter my woefully flat arches. I
finally found Freeds of London. I religiously ordered shoes from a particular cobbler, whose mark was
stamped on the bottom of my sole. That brand and make of shoes accompanied me through hours of class, rehearsals, and performances. I spent a lot of time breaking them in and keeping them in good shape.
They transformed me into Sleeping Beauty; they turned me into the Dew Drop Fairy. They were my most important material possession. Oddly, my attitude towards all other shoes was as indifferent as my attitude towards pointe shoes was obsessive. In high school and college, I wore the same old school vans day in and day out (Hey, it was the 90s; don’t judge me). The object was comfort and little else.
And then I moved from the stage to the pulpit. As part of that transition, I went to divinity school at Yale in Connecticut; inclement weather and walking everywhere meant practicality won out. I wore unremarkable tennis shoes and cheap penny loafers. I bought a pair of bejeweled aqua peep toe heels on a whim my senior year. I got them with no intention of wearing them in the pulpit; however, sometimes, what I intend is not what I actually end up doing. I wore the peep toes one summer Sunday morning soon after I was ordained to the diaconate, just for fun. I didn’t do it to get a reaction, but, boy, did I ever. It seems as if every single person in that church had something to say about my shoes that day. I wore them again. And again.
It didn’t take long before I had more new shoes – pink patent mary janes with a 3″ heel, white ballet flats, green pumas. I don’t have that many pairs of shoes, but the ones I do have are… interesting. It got to the point where my picture in the church’s monthly newsletter was of my shoes.
For me, my shoes signal that I’m human, something that I found to be incredibly important in a profession where you are sometimes in a different category than everyone else, which I refuse to be. The fact is, people often think they know you when you’re clergy, particularly in the Bible Belt, where I grew up and now live and serve. People sometimes assume they know how you vote (Republican), what you do in your spare time (you have none because you’re always tending the flock), what you will find funny (jokes that involve religion – nothing remotely risqué), not to mention what about you think about issues such as the war, abortion, and homosexuality. My shoes tip people off that maybe there’s more than a clerical collar here; they’re my visual question mark to a world that desperately wants to pigeonhole.
My shoes do more than that, though; they are the quintessential twenty-first century multi-taskers. My shoes might tell people that I’m fun-loving; I have this loud, boisterous laugh that I’m sure people imitate if they’re able to do so. My shoes are a conversation piece, a way out of awkward silences. My shoes are a vehicle for self-expression in a profession that forces me to wear a uniform that I have relatively little say over on most major occasions. Most importantly, for me, my shoes became a symbol in what continues to be an older male-dominated profession: “I’m not going to make apologies for being a young woman. I’m also not going to scream in your face and force you to accept me. I’m going to bypass all that and simply get on with being who I am, and part of that is, for me, not putting my femininity as I conceive of it or my age on a shelf.”
I’ve heard various arguments about why women preachers (it’s always women) should not wear anything other than black shoes. The one I hear the most is that more flamboyant shoes distract people when they should be paying attention to hearing the Word or receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. Fortunately for us, God in Christ is not invalidated by not being able to always get our full, undivided attention; if that were the case, we’d all be in some serious, serious trouble. The fact of the matter is, we often are far more distracted by what’s going on in our own heads and hearts, completely independent of one measly pair of shoes at the altar rail. We can’t remove distractions from life; we can only learn how to deal with them.
I also occasionally hear that we as preachers need to “get out of the way” or “let go and let God.” For some reason, many people translate that into being as bland or unobtrusive as possible. I see it differently. In order to let God work through me, I need to be who I am, not some picture of how I’m “supposed” to be that I’ll never be able to be. I’m a woman. I’m young. Unlike my pointe shoes, which made me into things that I was not, now my shoes help me claim my full identity as a child of God. If it’s something so simple helps me to do that, than so be it. Slightly frivolous? Maybe. But I have to wear shoes, and I may as well have a little fun with them.
The Triune God seems to have a sense of irony that simultaneously amuses, overwhelms, and irritates me. When I started writing this piece, I couldn’t remember my pointe shoe cobbler’s symbol’s name. I always thought of it as a treasure map X. When I looked it up, I was surprised to find that it is actually called the Maltese cross. I never would have imagined that ten years ago, when dancing was the closest thing to my heart and religion as an institution was the furthest thing from my mind, that I’d be making the same sign on the foreheads of babies after baptism that I used to bear on the soles of my pointe shoes.
Ann Bonner-Stewart is a graduate of Duke University (AB, 2001) and Yale Divinity School (MDiv, 2006). She serves as the associate rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, North Carolina, where she resides with her husband Jeff. Ann likes traveling, reading anything that's well-written, and, of course, shoes.
Image by: moerschy
Used with permission