Conversation on Class – More than Money
Money is part of it. How much you have (or don’t have) relates directly to the power you have in the world. Money buys security. It you have enough of it, you can even buy a Congressman, or at least a member of the state legislature. In some states, they go pretty cheap. If you don’t have money, you can’t take care of yourself and your family. You are at the mercy of the generosity of strangers or the rapidly shrinking social safety net. People who have money have class, at least most of the time. Remember all that talk about old money vs new money? Old money was classier than new, even if you didn’t have it anymore. I think I got that from old novels. Maybe it isn’t true any more. There are a lot of homeless people these days that grew up middle class or even wealthy.
Education is part of it. It isn’t just the degrees or the academic knowledge, it is understanding the cultural references, and how you compose your sentences. Remember My Fair Lady? Liza had to lose her accent. She had to learn to speak all over again.
But class is more than money and education. It’s how you move in the world. It is what you take for granted. Its how cultured and refined you are. Do you speak bluntly or do you talk around an issue? There a millions of class based clues to try and navigate. Ethnicity matters too, but class can even trump race at times.
I worked for the Social Security Administration in Richmond, CA for twenty five years. It was a large office with close to 2000 employees before the work was computerized. There was a clear class divide between the file clerks and the technicians and the managers. The office was very racially diverse at all levels of the organization, and the class lines seemed more firmly drawn than those of race. There were a lot of opportunities for promotion, however, and only about half of the technicians and managers had been to college. Even among the college graduates, very few had grown up middle class and I never met anyone there who had grown up wealthy. It makes some sense. A government job, at least in those days, offered security, something very important to those of us who grew up in families that struggled to pay the bills. Money and education created a divide, but there was still a common language and a common culture because most of us had come from similar places. The higher status employees could relate to the clerks and their lower income level because they had been there themselves. It was a culture I was very comfortable in.
Then I discovered Unitarian Universalism. The seven principles seemed to be very clear. Wealth, power, education, and status didn’t matter, everyone had inherent worth and dignity and we would work together for liberty and justice for all.
I still love Unitarian Universalism, but it is well past time to start dealing with the class issues within our movement. We are still a largely white and middle to upper middle class denomination. Most of our congregations, although they say they welcome everyone, can feel like a foreign country to people who are working or lower class. Like beer better than wine? Watch TV? Sitcoms or reality shows – not just PBS, the History Channel, or the Daily Show. Do you have a job in retail – or worse the dreaded Wal-mart? I don’t shop at Wal-mart because I can afford not to and because I don’t like the way they treat their employees. But should I roll my eyes and look down my nose at someone who does? Can’t I respect their inherent worth and dignity too? Should I greet a first time visitor the the church with a question about what they do for a living? If they are a young adult, should I ask them where they go to college?
Our faith, our wonderful faith, should not be reserved for those that already have power and privilege. If anything, those that are struggling need us even more. We don’t have to dumb down the theology, but it would help if we could be a little more concrete in our preaching and use some examples that regular people can relate to. If we just have to use 75 cent words to get our point across, for goodness sakes it wouldn’t kill us to define them. How about some variety in the music? Classical is fine, but if you did not grow up with it it gets boring really fast. It wouldn’t change our theology to include more rock, hip hop, show tunes, and (shock) even some country. Singing Kum Ba Yah doesn’t cut it. (I actually like Kum Ba Yah, but only once every two years or so or around a campfire.) Increase the tempo of your hymns. Make the sermons more interactive. Appeal to the heart as well as to the intellect.
That’s some of what you can do in your churches. On a national level, I also think we need to start giving some financial help to the churches that struggling because they have more economic diversity among their membership. My experience is that those with lower incomes actually tend to be more generous than the wealthy as a proportion of what they have. They know what things costs. But if you have a lot of poor people in your church, even with their generosity, it can make it hard to pay the bills, especially if you are trying to pay your fair share to the Annual Program Fund. Yes, we say we honor the “widow’s mite”, but do we really?
We also say we want to grow Unitarian Universalism. How can we grow if we restrict our message to those in an increasingly narrow demographic.? The middle class is shrinking rapidly, in case you haven’t noticed.
One of the many things I love about the church that I serve is the class diversity we have. OK, we don’t have anyone who is super wealthy, but we have a few upper middle class folks. We also have members on food stamps or that have lived in homeless shelters. Most folks are somewhere in between: truck drivers, electricians, schoolteachers, retail, and clerical workers. It is a comfort. No one is snooty. We have a number of members who have been in prison. Try getting a job, or even housing with a felony on your record. We have wine lovers and beer drinkers and recovering alcoholics. This can and should be a large faith, much bigger, wider and more welcoming than we are now. We need to open our doors and our hearts and let everybody in.