Class Is In, Class Is Out

This was a Sunday talk delivered at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Aug. 2, 2008.

So you heard me with the kids, and I hope those of you with children will entertain the questions of family history seriously—because I do believe it’s one avenue toward understanding class that makes sense for kids.

But really, that story was telescoped from a complex family history to one I could share with them in three minutes. And now we’ve got 15 minutes to tackle class in religious community. No problem.

And I could tell you that UUism has a class problem, but you know that in your bones. We’re a boutique religion born of two boutique religions, religions whose adherents have been largely white, largely professional, largely intellectual, and—honestly—largely elitist for nearly 200 years.

In this century, paradoxically, we’ve become a religion that increasingly articulates itself as being for the working poor, for the unempowered here and around the world—and here you sit, next to the engineer, the professor, the minister, the doctor, the scientist, the accountant, the salaried … while the working poor remain across town in pews that offer next-world prescriptions or this-world prohibitions for their longings and their concerns. There’s a disconnect.

But stop right there. Because as you know, a class filter is an imperfect instrument and the view I’ve just presented doesn’t look a whole lot like Thomas Paine. This is not a professional organization—it’s a loving community, with people from many walks of life. Sure, we celebrate good times, but just as often we struggle—we struggle to make ends meet; to provide care for children, parents, partners and ourselves; we struggle to do the right thing; to have the life we expect or imagine. This is the business of living—and it is not easy, for anyone. Being here on a Sunday in August can be proof positive of that.

So let’s agree to acknowledge class as a filter on our experience—as we acknowledge race; as we acknowledge sexual gender, gender identity and sexual preference; as we acknowledge the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. None are exclusive or all-encompassing. But to ignore any is to deny an aspect of our wholeness.

And let’s agree that class is a squishy term for a squishy thing. Did you catch the commercial last winter for one financial services firm in which each person on screen had a number, a five or six or seven digit number, attached to them like a sandwich board? Class keeps score, but the score isn’t solely about money. In fact, I’d say class is less about actual dollars and cents and more about choice and about power. It’s about the expectation that I will be heard—or that I won’t be heard. It’s about the expectation that I will be given more than one chance—or not, as the rapper Eminem says in a popular song of a few years back, “Lose Yourself,” a working class manifesto, of sorts. He says, grammar notwithstanding:

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

And still, what those opportunities look like and how one should pursue them can be counterintuitive stuff. Several years back a study compared the behavior of children of working class and professional class parents. The working class kids hewed very closely to the traditional expectations of children—respectful but non-challenging toward adults, with very strong intrafamily relationships. These kids knew their aunts and uncles and cousins. They sounded like the kids you wanted to have.

The professional class kids were pushy and whiny. They wanted things, they were rude and loud.

And the researchers’ surprising conclusion: These kids were doing exactly what their parents expected of them, even as it exasperated those same parents. Because these parents had grown up with a skepticism for authority, and had imparted it to their children—even at the price of diminishing their authority over their own kids. And, the researcher said, the strategy made a certain sense: these children had learned the lesson of the squeaky wheel—that nothing gets fixed without a request, that the system can be bent to your will … if you’re willing to stand up and engage  it. The working class kids—polite, respectful … and willing to be walked over by any number of bureaucracies.

So why in the world am I telling you about this? Because I went to GA this summer. For visitors, General Assembly is the national convention of Unitarian Universalists. This year it was held in Fort Lauderdale, in late June. Shockingly, some people were willing to come anyway.

On Thursday, there was an hourlong session called “Dialogue on Classism Within Unitarian Universalism.”

The dialogue was really between two ministers—one a co-minister with her husband to a congregation in central Pennsylvania, who was descended from, I believe, three signers of the Declaration of Independence; the other minister grew up poor on a farm in North Dakota. He shared stories of eating at restaurants with explicit instructions from his parents to order nothing more than soup. He said that even as he left his upbringing behind and headed into ministry, where he is now successful, he has often felt as if he were “class-passing,” making believe he is one class when he’s really another. He was the first minister I’ve ever heard say, “I make more money than I could ever have imagined making as a child. I have to pinch myself: I can’t believe my good fortune.”

The other minister appeared, for the most part, to have never given class much thought, even though she had agreed to serve on a panel called “Dialogue on Classism Within UUism.” She said she never considered herself very privileged—even though she had an inheritance, went to an Ivy League school and gave her daughters the same opportunity, even though she and her husband were in effect splitting a single full-time job (and with all due respect to our and other congregations’ ability to pay ministers, a not-very-lucrative job) and enjoying a very comfortable, if not ostentatious, life.

Stranger still, she made a point of stating that she had slept in a cot at a hotel with some friends, while that morning the other minister had, God forbid, ordered blueberry pancakes from room service at his hotel room. Room service!

Later, the woman appeared to realize that she had been blindsided to an extent by the topic, and the subject changed. Of course she knew about classism, she said, because she, like so many other women, had suffered sexism. For years. And it hurt. Suddenly, she pulled around herself a cloak of victimhood.

It was a cathartic experience, watching someone wrestle so awkwardly with her class identity in front of 100 people, many her professional colleagues. And it made the point to me that I needed to come back here, to our community, and encourage us to look at what we do and why we do it through a filter of class. Because we do not all come to this community from the same place, and we do not all come for the same things, and we do not offer the same gifts. But it’s the coming together of our human spirits, each respecting the others, that makes a community special and holy.

In an influential essay “Not My Father’s Religion,” Doug Muder writes about why his working-class dad would have a hard time finding someone to talk to at the typical UU community. The gist of his argument: UUs have a professional class bias. They’re good at discernment, at the balancing of multiple goods (family, vs. career vs. church) whereas more conservative faith practices that appeal to the working class are more polar, and more about positing good vs. evil.

Me? I think our problem is we have a history of overthinking the entire subject. And that’s not just our never-ending search for our community’s “burning ember.” Do you remember a recent UU marketing campaign, one on which hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent?

It was called The Uncommon Denomination.

Uncommon? God, I HATED this. Because it was a loser any way you looked at it—either we were uncommon because we were weird, or strange, or something different from every other religion.

Or we were uncommonly good—better than the rest, by golly. The condescension almost dripped off the paper.

And neither of these are where my faith rests.

And thankfully for me, it’s not where our faith rests, either. The leader of our movement, the Rev. William Sinkford, recently announced a new formulation: Nurture the spirit and help heal the world.

Nurture the spirit, and help heal the world.

Perfect. Uncommon? Heck no, we’re just like every other religion, here to save lives, in our community and in our world.

And what does this mean about class? Don’t ignore it, but embrace our fellow travelers, however they arrive here.

We’re here for everyone. Through love, all are healed, wisdom is shared, all are made whole.

And, as it’s getting late, here are a few tips if you want the nice person you see in the lobby to come back again:

  • Don’t start by asking what the person does. Many people who aren’t in the professional class don’t want to be defined by their occupation. Let people tell you who they are. You’ll be astonished.
  • If they don’t want to talk profession, don’t jump straight to the Eagles. People come to a religious community for spirituality. Ask where they’ve been and what they’re looking for. Let them tell us. And let’s try to provide it.

That’s it. Unitarian Universalism is a faith with room for all people. But it requires us to be intentional. So, if you are a member here, prepare space for everyone. And if you are visiting and looking for a spiritual home, know this is a place where you will be welcomed and you will be valued.

The events of the last week demand from us a response. And it could be a fearful one. But we are not a fearful people. We were brave enough to reach this place, to make it our home, and now we prepare it for those who come after us. And so our response is what it must be: You are welcome here.

Blessed be. Go in peace.

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