Quarantine Routine: Famed Pastor John Gray on the Powerful Way Sneakers, Fashion Can Bring Unity in Crisis

In a new SPY series, FN interviews celebrities, athletes and fashion insiders about their “Quarantine Routine.” They open up about the changes to their daily lives amid the coronavirus crisis. Previous guests include Nicky Hilton, Dascha Polanco and Rasheeda.

It’s gotta be the shoes.

For John Gray, a renowned speaker and pastor who leads the 20,000-member Relentless Church in Greenville, S.C., his divine purpose is clear: He’s on a mission to spread the word of God.

Still, when he walks to the pulpit to deliver a sermon or takes a stroll along a sidewalk in Greenville, he doesn’t mind if his $1,000-plus sneakers are the first thing you notice. In fact, he doesn’t even care if you’re fixated on them.

Because it’s by design.

“The truth is … my shoes are speaking to a part of culture that thinks church isn’t real. My shoes open up conversations with guys on the street who wouldn’t even want to hear from me if they knew I was a preacher first,” Gray explained when he joined FN for its Quarantine Routine series on Instagram Live this week. “They want to talk about the sneakers I got on. Then, they ask me what I do, and [when I say I’m a pastor] they’re like ‘Oh, and you rock those?’”

He added, “I’ve had conversations with people who say ‘I mess with you because you dress like me.’ If that’s what it takes for somebody to get saved, then I’ll rock a pair of Js or a pair of Yeezys.”

While entertainers and boldface designers have long been lauded for their standout style, spiritual leaders who have opted to don fashion-forward labels — nowadays buzzy sneakers fit the bill, too — have often drawn the ire of those who argue that spirituality should be rooted in modesty, long-suffering and frugality.

But as a pandemic sweeps across the globe and ushers in an abundance of new perspectives, perhaps one of them is the underscoring of the message that fashion, creativity and expression can be singular, unifying vehicles for the masses. From the face masks that fashion firms like Prada, H&M, Zara and Christian Siriano have moved to create in droves to the Yeezys that Gray dons as he delivers a remote sermon to hundreds of thousands of viewers each Sunday, fashion can serve as a nod to the disenfranchised that they’re seen and understood.

For minority communities, in particular, which have for decades shouldered the challenges of system racism, fashion can create a sense of pride and belonging that cultural and socioeconomic hurdles make it difficult to otherwise acquire.

Put differently, fly kicks can be a great equalizer — and for Gray, an apt reminder of his past and critical tool in bringing his message to the masses.

In his trend-right sneakers, Gray also preaches weekly at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which boasts one of the largest congregations in the United States. The broadcast is seen by about 8 million families worldwide and, with 1 million followers on his personal Instagram, Gray is connecting with scores of African-American millennials, in particular, who may have lost touch with the church of yesteryear.

“What I learned about myself is that sneakers are an expression of who I am in totality,” he explained. “I’m not a hoarder. I like shoes because I’ve always liked shoes. I’ve liked them when I was little. I got my first pair of Jordans in ’85. I got the first Jordans, and they were $63 — that’s a lot of money for a single mother [to spend on footwear].”

It’s a lesson that’s all too familiar to many Americans who were raised with scarce resources and take particular pride in their outward appearance and its ability to signify what they’ve overcome.

Now, as COVID-19 takes hold and American families grapple with the wide-ranging repercussions as well as search for hidden lessons in the mayhem, Gray said he continues to find connective elements between creativity, expression and healing.

“Walk your path,” he said. “Everybody was created for purpose, and our purposes do not look the same. Our swag is not the same. The expression of your creativity is the expression of the divine that was placed in you … However you rock your gear, don’t let the gear rock you. Whether I’m rocking my Off-Whites or some vintage Js, I’m walking the path I was assigned to do.”

He added, “Every human being should maximize their moments, express themselves creatively and add color and culture to the world — while you’re adding culture and color, add context. I’m not talking about race; I’m talking about the artistic, creative imprint that is your humanity.”

Watch the interview here:

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