What does your coat say about you? I moved to Seattle when I was twenty-three years old. I had long hair, an orange VW Bus, and no coat. Having come from Los Angeles, my wardrobe consisted of t-shirts, jeans, and shorts. Arriving in the Pacific Northwest in November, I experienced ninety days of rain in a row. I couldn’t wrap my mind around all the coat purchasing options. Overwhelmed by REI, fleece liners, outer shells, and wind breaker vest combos, I finally caught the flu and was sick for a week. My budget and poor understanding of the cultural significance of a coat led me to the Army Navy surplus store. It was here that I bought my first coat. Looking for a job in a new city with a ponytail and a coat that screamed homeless guy was an eye-opening experience. It never occurred to me that a giant cheap coat would made me look sketchy.
My relationship with coats has always been troubled. As a kid I lost my coat every year. My mom finally got mad and said that she was done buying coats for me. I remember having to wiggle out of a snug hand-me-down in the hallways of middle school. The broken zipper canceled out the “wow factor” of the detachable sleeves. Years later my mom would confess that her only parenting regret was bugging me to wear a coat. She would lament, “Just because I was always cold didn’t mean you were. Kids aren’t cold. They are running around being kids.” My mom was cold if it was below eighty degrees. She stopped visiting me in Seattle because of the rain and my no smoking in the house rule.
After the Pacific Northwest Army Navy Surplus homeless guy jacket, I continued down the road of transient fashion. Triple extra-large flannels were a staple. Combined with a bright orange cycling windbreaker, my look could be best described as lumberjack meets Tour de France meets crossing guard. Then, I got married. My wife quickly replaced my wardrobe with items that were in style. Now, I had several coats. According to my wife it is “fun” to have coats for different situations. This was when I learned about the theological implications of a coat.
My wife and I met volunteering with street youth. We would walk around downtown at night praying with people, encouraging homeless kids to be safe, reminding them that Jesus never abandoned them. It was a miraculous community of faith. I noticed that my coat could be a topic of conversation. Once while wearing a jumbo flannel with Carhartt overalls, I was told by a homeless kid that I looked like an ax murderer. My puffy Old Navy coat apparently made me look like a crack head. The coat everyone liked had a huge fur-lined hood. What was my coat saying about me? What does my coat say about my relationship with God?
I have been emotionally attached to a few of my coats. The windbreaker I wore while working for the post office was my literal armor of God. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:10-11).” I would eventually get a uniform allowance and wear the standard issue gear. However, the windbreaker I got from the REI Memorial Day sale was the best. Lightweight, warm, and indestructible, it helped me survive snow, dogs, and other mailmen. When I left the post office to work in full time street ministry, I found myself once again without a coat.
Pastoral street ministry necessitates strategic choices when it comes to outerwear. You need to have a beanie no matter what. The beanie needs to be warm, but not too fancy. The coat is more complicated. It needs to be waterproof, warm, and understated. Personally, I don’t want to spend two hundred dollars on a coat. I also don’t want to freeze. My first coat for Operation Nightwatch street ministry was a sixty dollar Columbia ski jacket from Marshalls. It has served me well. My friends on the street have told me that it is a good brand. “Hey Mike, that’s a nice coat.” I still haven’t washed the casserole stains from Community Dinners off of it!
Giving homeless people coats when it is freezing outside is one of my greatest joys. It is such a powerful demonstration of God’s practical love. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Matthew 25:35-36 ESV).” To give a new coat to a person living outside is to speak the power of life over death. A new coat for a homeless person is the embodiment of salvation. “Wake up, wake up, O Zion! Clothe yourself with strength. Put on your beautiful clothes, O holy city of Jerusalem, for unclean and godless people will enter your gate no longer (Isaiah 52:1 NLT).” There is restoration in a new coat.
Clothing communicates cultural norms and expectations. My daughter bought me Nike Airforce Ones for my birthday. When I wear them on outreach somebody, usually under thirty, lets me know that my shoes are cool. I prefer to wear my Nike Air Monarchs. Classic “dad shoes,” simple, durable, and comfortable. I like my mailman shoes! Besides, is there anything worse than guys my age trying to dress like they’re twenty? I went to a church for many years that preached “you can learn a lot about a pastor by looking at his shoes.” So much for the content of our character. This group believed that we should approach God in excellence. This meant suits, ties, and shiny shoes. I was doomed to hell the minute my slovenly self entered the sanctuary.
On the street, clothing is about survival. My gutter punk friends use dental floss as sewing thread, recycling the same clothes over and over again. Sweatpants under jeans with two pairs of socks communicates function over form. Laundry is challenging and clothes are disposable for the homeless. Clothes are also currency. “Yo, my buddy gave me this coat for a phone charger.” Homeless people are also generous, they will literally give you the coat off their backs. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise (Luke 3;11).” What a blessing to be gifted a coat.
This Christmas I received a two hundred dollar Amazon gift card. The elders and deacons from a church that is in my network just wanted to bless me. I purchased a black Carhartt insulated jacket, concluding my long and arduous coat journey. I ordered the wrong size and had to return it. After returning it, it was sent back as damaged and undeliverable. It finally arrived, a coat that’s warm, fits, and meets the approval of my family. Whenever I wear this coat, a homeless friend pays me a compliment. “Hey Mike, that’s a nice coat.” After standing outside with homeless people in the rain and snow, I will never take my coat or salvation for granted. My mom would be so proud!