Conversation on Class – Water Communion

Many of our congregations hold a water communion on a Sunday in late summer or early fall.  We did ours today.  The ritual can be moving if it works to build a sense of beloved, inclusive, community.  The metaphor of water is easy to do that with, every drop is important, no matter who you are you add something that enriches us all.

I have grown to love the water communion, but I used to hate it.

I still hate it when everyone in the congregation gets up and tells  long rambling stories about where they collected their water.  It is a worst nightmare version of joys and sorrows.  (I also don’t like joys and sorrows, but that is a different post).

The worst part about it is when people are bragging about where they went on their summer vacation.  “Oh, this is water from the river Jordan.” If people have no money and no time off because they work at low paying lousy jobs with no vacation time or benefits, they don’t need to hear someone gloat about their  world travels in a church service.  The minister or worship leader always says the water could be from your backyard, but that doesn’t help that much when most people seem to be talking about places like a beach somewhere in Tahiti.  The water communion as practiced in some of our churches is elitist and classist.

Some vacation stories might be OK for coffee hour conversations, but they are definitely NOT Ok for worship.  Even at coffee hour, I hope the conversation doesn’t go, “I went to Greece, Italy and Spain over the summer.  Where did you go? ”  It is hard to answer that without feeling the class differences.  Maybe all you did was go camping at a nearby park, or maybe you went nowhere at all.  Not everyone gets vacation time and not everyone who has the time, has the money to travel.  Is that so hard to understand?

We have got to get over the assumption that some of us have that our congregations are composed entirely of upper middle class professionals.  One, it isn’t true.  It is a myth.  There are poor and working class people in most every UU congregation, but in too many they are quiet about it because of shame and the fear of rejection.  And two, if we act like that is the reality we will in the process drive a lot of good folks away.

My other pet peeve is calling the water communion service, ingathering or homecoming Sunday.  The terms probably date back to when most of our New England churches closed for the summer because  “everyone”  was gone (because “everyone” could afford to the leave the heat of the city?).   Some of our churches still do that, even in the west, and some of the “summer services” in some of our congregations are simply dreadful.  They are not worship, in any sense of that word.  It may in fact be better to close than offer something that resembles a lecture or a living room rap sessions.  Yes, ministers tend to take some vacation time during the summer, but there is no reason lay led services can’t be of excellent quality.

The terms “Ingathering” and “Homecoming” also imply that most people went away and that many of them did not attend all summer long.  That just isn’t true anymore and it devalues those folks that faithfully attended throughout the summer.

I do understand that the fall signals the “New Church Year.” Programing picks up and formal religious exploration classes begin again.  It is the beginning of school for families with children.  It is a lovely time to dedicate new board members and teachers.  It is also the time of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah,  and yes, the Days of Awe are well worth mentioning in a religious community.

But ingathering?  How does that sound if you didn’t go anywhere? Homecoming?  What if you have been home all summer?

We need to start examining what we call things and how we do things through the filter of class awareness.   Habit is not an excuse.  “We have always called it that, we have always done it that way,” is perhaps an explanation, but it is not a reason to continue to do so.  “Susan will be disappointed and upset if she doesn’t get to say where her water comes from,” may be a true statement.  But much better to disappoint some people than to send an unspoken but crystal clear message to others that our community is not for them and that they will never, ever fit in.

We are much, much better than that.


See blog post about this topic by other UU ministers:

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6 responses to “Conversation on Class – Water Communion”

  1. Amy Zucker Morgenstern says :

    You might be interested in this post of mine.

    I don’t have a problem with the term Ingathering because our church does have a new year. Certain things begin in at this time of year: the new round of Chalice Circles, Religious Education (even though it goes all summer), the new crew of Worship Associates, the adult choir (which takes a two-month break each summer). Like January 1, the start of the fiscal year, a wedding anniversary, this “start date” is more a convenient fiction than an actual beginning of things, but convenient fictions ARE convenient: they allow us to mark with ritual something we wish to celebrate, such as, in this case, our joy at being a congregation together. Aside from that, I’m with you. And you are making me think about whether we could shift more of these beginnings so that they don’t converge on September.

    Our Water Communion was August 18 and it was about 75% successful in getting away from the “faraway places” meme. I’m going to tweak it further next year.

  2. Amanda says :

    What a thought-provoking post! I’ve enjoyed water communion since becoming a UU in 2007. Strangely, even though I’m one of the poor ones you are speaking for, I don’t relate to what you said. I have no money for travel and stayed home all summer as usual, but I love hearing where other more financially fortunate members have visited. I picture these faraway places in my imagination, and get to travel vicariously through their experiences – and ask them about it at coffee hour, which makes good conversation. Of course I wish I could see these rivers, bridges, oceans – but maybe someday I WILL see it, and this is my free trip advisory service in advance lol.

    There are also working class people like myself who travel around the state or visit relatives “on the cheap” even though they are struggling through evictions, divorce, and raising kids without enough money – I love hearing about these positive trips in their life of otherwise hardships.

    If everyone at my fellowship had to stand up and say “This water came from my backyard or my land” (like I did) or if we weren’t allowed to share any stories at all, I don’t know if I would even attend Water Communion. And I’m speaking for myself here, as someone living below the poverty level. Before your post I had never even considered this issue. Thank you!

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