A Story of the Vestments

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In 2003, I was honored to be a part of the ELCA National Youth Gathering as bible study teacher/preacher. The theme of the Gathering was Ubuntu. In the teacher/preacher role I was given a vestment from Africa to wear. After the Gathering I was gifted the vestment by then Bishop Mark Hansen.

When I returned to my congregation, a seamstress of the congregation, Nancy Bowman agreed to make me a copy of this vestment for every season of the church year. I gave her African fabric that had been gifted to me from a dear friend and I shopped at the African market in Harlem for some.

So, I have been wearing this type of vestment called a dalmatic for over 15 years. I wear this instead of a stole because this vestment to me seems women clergy friendly. It feels more like me and it allows me to represent all of my identity. I am a woman of African descent who is a Lutheran clergy person. All of my vestments made of some African Cloth in the design I believe help me to be fully who I am and walk fully in my call.

In May, when a historic moment in the ELCA took place, the election of two African American Women clergy to the office of synodical bishop, I reached out to my sister clergy and asked would they like vestments like these for the installation of these two bishops. I stated that I could commission dalmatics from tailors in Africa. They were as excited as I was about these events and wanted something special; I said that I could commission fifteen. I knew that I was traveling to Cameroon, Senegal and the Gambia before the installations of the bishops. Though I said fifteen, the request grew to over thirty.

My job takes me to Madagascar, Rwanda and countries in West and Central Africa. I have come to know tailors in many of these countries. Commissioning tailors in countries in Africa would do a number of things: 1) it would help the local economies; 2) it would connect African descent women clergy to their ancestry; 3) it would be a public witness of our support for our sister bishops.

To help with this task I enlisted missionaries in these countries to help. First was Anne Langdji, regional representative in Cameroon, she and her husband , Willie, helped me shop for cloth;  commission their tailor Ruben and delivered vestments to the USA when they came for home assignment. Ruben made 20 of the vestments.

The next missionary who helped was Rev. Kristin Engstrom who serves as the YAGM coordinator in Senegal. She also shopped with me, helped me think of designs and commissioned Sellie a tailor that she graciously shares with me to make the vestments. Sellie made seven. Kristin delivered them to the USA in July.

I was also in the Gambia where I used the tailor Aliou who works in his cousin’s shop to make two of the vestments.

The last five vestments were made by Rev. Janelle Neubauer’s tailor, Mark, in Rwanda. Janelle is the YAGM Coordinator there.

vestments Viviane installation
African American Lutheran Pastors

Above is a picture of African American Women Lutheran Clergy gathered for Bishop Viviane Thomas Breitfeld’s installation wearing these vestments.

We wanted to wear these vestments as a sign of our identity and of support for our two African American Women Bishops.

I am now commissioning vestments for other seasons of the church year. I am able to do this because I am always westafricabound.

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