It’s been more than a year now that churchgoers have been watching virtual-streamed Sunday services on their cellphones and computers during the pandemic. Many tune in while wearing sweatpants or pajamas.
Then there’s La Verne Ford Wimberly of Tulsa, Okla.
The 82-year-old retired educator decks herself out head to toe every Sunday, then — to the delight of fellow parishioners at Metropolitan Baptist Church — posts a selfie on Facebook after the service.
Since March 29, 2020, she has taken photos of herself from her living room in 53 different color-coordinated outfits — each one carefully selected from the burgeoning closets, jewelry boxes, and neatly stacked hat boxes that have satisfied her love of making a grand entrance since she was a young schoolteacher.
“If anyone is feeling downtrodden, they just look at her [Facebook] page and immediately feel uplifted,” said Robin Watkins, 54, the church’s executive office assistant. “Her heart is as beautiful as each outfit she has shared with us.”
Parishioners often call Wimberly “Doctor” — a nod to her doctorate in education and the years she spent as a school principal and superintendent after she’d moved on from teaching, Watkins said.
She was already known at her church for the head-turning outfits she wore every Sunday, so when the pandemic hit last year and in-person services were canceled, Wimberly decided to up her game.
“In the 20 years I’ve been going to church there, I’ve always had my little routine that I learned from my mother as a girl,” she said. “I’d pick out a nice outfit and hat and lay it out the night before, so that I could be prepared and look presentable.”
When she learned that Metropolitan’s service would be streamed due to the pandemic, Wimberly said she couldn’t imagine wearing her bathrobe and slippers while tuning in from her living room.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t sit here looking slouchy in my robe,’” she said. “I didn’t want to sit around alone and feel sorry for myself, so I decided, ‘I’m going to dress up anyway.’”
Wimberly got up early to do her hair and makeup, then slipped into a favorite white dress trimmed with eyelet, a sheer white ruffled hat, matching shoes, and a beaded turquoise and gold necklace.
After she posted the photo and a Bible scripture for her friends, she was inundated with positive responses, she said.
“For years, everyone had known to look for me in the last row, section two, dressed to the nines,” Wimberly said. “People always looked forward to seeing what I was wearing. So when I posted that photo, everyone told me it boosted their spirits.”
The following Sunday, she selected a bright blue ensemble with silver and white jewelry. And the week after that, on Easter Sunday, Wimberly chose a pink skirt and beaded sweater jacket, and a matching hat decorated with pink and yellow lilies.
She soon decided to log her outfits on a calendar so that she wouldn’t wear the same outfit twice.
When she was growing up, Wimberly said she cared more about climbing trees than wearing frilly things.
It wasn’t until she became a teenager and noticed that one of her junior high teachers wore a different beautiful outfit to school each day that she gradually developed an appreciation for fashion, she said.
After graduating from the University of Tulsa and being hired to teach first grade in Chicago, Wimberly said she decided to emulate that teacher’s example and dress up for the kids.
“They’d rub my arm and say, ‘Oh, Miss Ford [her maiden name], you look so pretty,’” she recalled. “Pretty soon, I had so many clothes that I started a rotation and color-coding system, so I could keep surprising the kids with my outfits.”
When she moved to Tulsa to pursue a career as a principal and administrator, she continued that tradition at work and at church, said Wimberly, who has lived on her own since her husband, James Oliver Wimberly, died in 2009.
Last month, a local television reporter who attends Wimberly’s church did a story about her colorful outfits and Wimberly started hearing “from people everywhere” that the photos made them smile.
”The whole point was to inspire people and make them feel good,” said Wimberly, “so I’m happy that’s working.”
Her pastor, Ray Owens, is not surprised that Wimberly’s vogue outfits are a hit.
“Dr. Wimberly’s impressive hat collection is merely an outer expression of her inner wisdom, wit, and grace,” he said. “We look forward to the day she again graces our church sanctuary with her impeccable style.”