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Casual Fridays? Make That Sundays

In Southern California, where houses of worship reflect a wide range of cultures, ages and lifestyles, the look is laid-back and personal.

April 20, 2001|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 1950s, if you blindfolded worshipers in one church, dropped them into another, and asked them to size up the congregation--awash in conservative coats, ties and dresses--they'd never suspect they'd switched churches.

But if you dropped those same churchgoers into today's Southern California congregations, they might think they had landed in the middle of the Pacific, the heart of Africa, or on the set of a Gidget movie with Moondoggie and the Big Kahuna.

Sunday wardrobes now reflect age, ethnicity and even hobbies--from African American chic at the KRST Unity Center of African Spirituality in Los Angeles to a dude's Sunday best (knock the sand off your feet) at the Surfer's Chapel in Huntington Beach.

In many churches, pastors even swap outfits between services to make their congregants feel comfortable: jeans and a sweater on Saturday night and liturgical robes on Sunday.

"People are choosing--and don't think it's any different than any aspect of contemporary religious life--to use the congregation to express self-identity," said William H. Swatos, an Episcopal priest and executive officer for the Florida-based Assn. for the Sociology of Religion. "It gives a transcendent validation to one's lifestyle."

When it comes to church fashion, clergy do agree on one thing: Clothes styles don't matter to God. The debate is over whether clothes make, or at least help, the worshiper.

"Most of us are just so happy to see them come--whatever they're wearing," said the Rev. Scott Richardson, senior associate for parish life at All Saints Church, an Episcopal parish in Pasadena. "What bothers me more is when I hear, 'I really want to come to church, but I don't have the clothes for it.' I find that really sad. Please, just come as you are. Everyone's welcome."

Nondenominational churches have attracted huge crowds of disenfranchised Christians and religious newcomers with their casual style. Guitars and rock singers have replaced organs and choirs, and T-shirts and shorts have replaced scratchy collars and itchy nylons.

An informal style helped draw more than 3,500 worshipers to Easter services last week at Rock Harbor church in Costa Mesa, founded only 3 1/2 years ago. Congregants wore a wide array of Gen-X attire--including jeans, shorts, muscle shirts and baseball caps. They also sported tattoos, earrings and bleached hair.

"Clothing can be a hangup if that becomes the focus," said lead pastor Keith Page, who on Sunday wears hip clothes, multiple earrings and an ever-changing hairstyle. "If we focus on the outer in any part of our lives, that can become a barrier to worship and fellowship. Come as you are--that feels like Jesus."

Other religions have seen a slight dip in fashion formality, though nothing like the eclectic fashion sense of Christian congregations. At Reform synagogues, for example, men now often wear slacks and dress shirts instead of suits. And women frequently feel comfortable in nice pants and a blouse in addition to dresses.

"It's a minor change," said Cantor Shula Kalir-Merton of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo, who sometimes wears pantsuits. "But a change nonetheless. I call it 'casual civilized.' "

Muslims who are second-generation Americans have brought wardrobe updates including jeans and T-shirts for the men. Some women cover their heads with designer scarves rather than traditional chadors.

The American Muslims pulled off the style changes while still upholding Islamic laws on modesty, according to Hussam Ayloush, Southern California executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations. "I've never heard anyone complain," Ayloush said. "They dress up with clothing that might look very Western in terms of style, but it's also modest."

Church dress also tends to reflect the heritage of its congregants. At St. Joseph Church in Santa Ana, which has 200 Samoan members, women wear puletasis, or floral tops and matching wrap-around skirts. On regular Sundays, men put on ofutinos, a floral-print shirt, with khaki pants. For special occasions, the men wear a festive lava-lava wrap-around called 'ie faitaga.

The Samoans, including the men who sing in the choir, also coordinate their clothes with the color of the liturgical season, adding splashes of color throughout the church. "It reminds you of your culture and customs," said Nive Talavou Brown, who was raised in Western Samoa. "Even though the service is done in English, it makes you feel like you're really worshiping God in your own language."

About 40% of the Rev. Richard Byrd's congregation at the KRST Unity Center of African Spirituality in Los Angeles dresses in African-inspired garb: mudcloth fabrics and designs, dashikis and head wraps. "People are here because they identify with their African heritage," Byrd said. "This gives us an outlet."

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