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Pastor ink: UM ministers reflect spiritual journey, sacrifice through Christian tattoos Jessica Connor, Sep 27, 2011
“When I became a Christian, the Lord pierced through my life, and I wanted to reflect that in [a] tattoo,” says the Rev. Randy Bowers.
By Jessica Connor Special Contributor
COLUMBIA, S.C.—Their reasons are as varied as the ink that marks their flesh. But for a handful of United Methodist pastors in the South Carolina Conference, their tattoos have become the ultimate symbol of their faith, something that marks them forever as God’s own. Some of them hide their tattoos, afraid of being judged or even run out of church for eternally branding their bodies in this way.
But others wear their ink where all can see, using the tattoos as the ultimate conversation-starter when it comes to evangelizing.
And whether their tattoos are for others or for themselves, these pastors aren’t afraid to voice their many reasons for getting inked.
“Christ has marked me as his own, so to me I’m symbolizing that I’ve been transformed by God’s grace forever,” said the Rev. Michael Bingham, senior pastor of Pond Branch United Methodist Church in Gilbert, who has four Christian tattoos, including one huge back piece featuring St. Michael the Archangel.
Mr. Bingham is one of a growing number of pastors who use their bodies to reflect Christianity or their call—or both. The tattoos are often an expression of their faith, but the pastors also embrace other elements of the inking process, from the aspect of being marked to the selection of artwork and even the pain as self-denial.
Mr. Bingham got his first tattoo in May 2001, when he graduated from seminary. His mother-in-law gave him $100 as a graduation gift, and he promptly plunked that down on his first tattoo. The irony of it wasn’t lost on either of them.
“She’s a little proper,” Mr. Bingham said, laughing at the memory.
But the tattoo itself was no joke to the Erskine Theological Seminary graduate, who selected the Christian fish symbol (ichthys) with the Latin words “In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus” —in everything may God be glorified.
Every one of Mr. Bingham’s tattoos has carefully thought-out symbolism, and all are intensely personal to him.
For his second time under the needle, to celebrate his commissioning, he got a sword through the Bible on one arm (representing that God’s word is sharper than any doubled-edged sword) with the words “Homo Unius Libri,” from John Wesley’s journal—a man of one book. Then for his ordination in 2004, he got a scroll (an homage to history and the writings of early Christians) and in Latin, “Servus Servorum Dei”—servant to the servants of God.
His last one, an 8½-hour back piece done just a couple of years ago, features a triumphant Revelation-themed St. Michael standing on Lucifer, his foot crushing him, with a sword over his head and pointing up to God. The archangel on his back represents triumph over evil. “I say, ‘I’ve got my angel with me everywhere I go. He’s got my back,’” Mr. Bingham said.
He’s thinking about getting his chest done next, after he settles on just the right artwork.
“For me, part of the motivation of being tattooed is that my faith is indelibly marked,” Mr. Bingham said. “I cannot deny my faith even if I wanted to; I cannot wash off these marks on my body.”
The Rev. Brad Gray, senior pastor of Greene Street UMC in Columbia, has two tattoos: a 4-5-inch ichthys on the back of his left shoulder blade, and the triquetra (three bodies of the fish in a triangle format with a circle going through it) on the side of his right shoulder. Mr. Gray got his first tattoo when he was a student at Wofford College and on a trip to San Francisco studying the Old West. By fluke, the students had paid too much for their trip and ended up getting $150 back. So he spent his unexpected cash on a tattoo.
“I wanted to be marked,” Mr. Gray said. “I wasn’t going through anything terrible at that time, but there’s something to be said about that sense of accomplishment, about sitting through suffering and having it be permanent.”
But the second tattoo, which he got in divinity school, came during a time of hardship. He had been wrestling with the call, with faith and with the end of a bad relationship, and the tattoo signifies his commitment to his Christian path.
Because it is on his arm, Mr. Gray can see it in the mirror every day and be constantly reminded that he is a man of God—make no mistake.
Other pastors have non-Christian tattoos in addition to Christian tattoos, and they are no less meaningful. The Rev. Randy Bowers, senior pastor of Summerton UMC, will not reveal the number of tattoos he has. But for Mr. Bowers, all of his tattoos are an expression of who he is, “a reflection of my life all through—before I was a Christian and then after.”
Mr. Bowers was not raised in a church and didn’t even set foot in one until he was 20 years old and met the girl he would later marry. So his tattoos reflect a sweeping spiritual journey—and not all positive, he said.
“They’re a part of who I am at that period of time in my life: a reflection of my inner feelings, thoughts, who I actually am,” Mr. Bowers said. Most of the tattoos cannot be seen when he is wearing regular clothing, but the two on his arms that are decidedly Christian tattoos are visible. One, a full-color cross with Jesus’ name and a crown of thorns, at first glance appears to be piercing his arm.
“The reason behind that one is that when I became a Christian, the Lord pierced through my life, and I wanted to reflect that in the tattoo,” Mr. Bowers said.
The other, a band that fully circles his arm, features the ichthys and a cross alternating all the way around. He got that one a few years ago after his wife gave him a ring with that pattern; medication he takes makes his hands swell, so instead of the ring he decided to put the image on his arm in the form of a tattoo.
“It’s kind of like a wedding band,” Mr. Bowers said.
And sure, it’s painful. But that’s part of the point, for many of these pastors.
Mr. Gray said the pain reminds him that he is real, that painful things will come but will end.
Mr. Bingham said the pain is part of earning the right to wear the tattoo. Much like being a disciple, there is a price you pay spiritually to follow Christ. The pain also serves as a reminder of the passion of the Christ, His willingness to deny Himself for our sake.
“We’re called on as disciples to deny ourselves,” Mr. Bingham said. “It’s easy to argue that I chose to do that, I didn’t have to endure some temporary pain to wear a mark that says ‘I’m a Christian, I belong to Christ.’ But still, it invokes the concept of self-denial.”
Fear of judgment
Not everyone is a fan of tattoos—especially when it comes to a United Methodist pastor sporting permanent ink on his or her body. Mr. Bowers said he’s had people and even other pastors come up to him and tell him it’s not Christian to have a tattoo.
“I challenge them to point out where it is in the Bible that says God has stricken anyone dead for having one,” Mr. Bowers said. “We’re all pointing out, ‘This is a sin, that is a sin,’ and we focus more on what’s a sin than the love of Christ. Yet we’ve got a whole bunch of people who won’t even come into a church because of [that judgment].”
Mr. Bingham said that because he is a pastor, he usually covers up his tattoos out of respect to some who might have a problem with it. He said his church knows about his tattoos, and no one has ever chastised him for them.
But he has encountered many pastors who come up to him and confess in a whisper that they, too, have a tattoo—yet they are too afraid to tell others out of fear of being judged.
Mr. Bingham said he knows more and more young pastors who are getting inked and not hiding it, almost like a rite of passage.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 24 percent of Americans ages 18 to 50 have at least one tattoo. And while United Methodist pastors might not reflect that same percentage, Mr. Bingham thinks the numbers of tattooed pastors— and those not afraid to say they are—will continue to climb.
Preaching through skin
After all, as much as they can be a tool for judgment, tattoos can very often be a tool for evangelism.
Mr. Bingham said he has had ample opportunities to witness to people who ask about his tattoos, especially to young people.
And Mr. Bowers said his tattoos have brought people to church on many occasions. He has worked with gangs, wayward youth and others who embrace sinful lives, and the tattoos have been a conversation-starter for people who often think the church is about judgment and not love.
“People ask, ‘You really are a minister?’ I show them my business card, and they say, ‘Wow, so what if I wanted to come to your church?’ And I say, ‘That’d be great,’” Mr. Bowers said. “And they’ve come.”
Ms. Connor is editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, where this story first appeared.