Tag Archive | classism

Searching for Sugar


“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  But you can’t make lemonade without sugar.  When our lives are messed up and lousy with lemons, we need to look for some sugar before we can even think about making lemonade.

Not to take the metaphor too far, but our culture serves lots of lemons to people and then blames them for not making lemonade.  If life is a lemon where can we find the sugar?  If sugar is love (give me some sugar darling), then Unitarian Universalism can be just what a whole lot of people need.

Or maybe it is mainly universalism they need.  They need to know that their lives are worth something, that they matter, and yes, that God loves them fully and without judgement or conditions.  When the wider culture tells you are sinful, that you will surely go to hell, or that your troubles are simply your own fault, or even worse, God’s punishment, it feels truly terrible.  Then you really might need to find a church community that is truly loving and accepting, a church that doesn’t believe in hell at all, that treats everyone with respect for their worth and dignity. Finding a church like that can be literally life-saving for all sorts of people.

Who needs this message most in America?  LGBT people need it, and they have been coming to our churches in numbers for decades.  Poor people need it and they come too, but they don’t tend to stay around for very long in most of our congregations.  Actually, most of the working class LGBT people don’t stay very long either.

It is time, I think, to look more deeply at how our church culture around class issues is leaving a lot of people sucking on lemons.  They aren’t finding the sugar, the accepting love, that they came looking for.  They hear words of love and acceptance, but still often feel like they are somehow less valued than other people in the church.  What if you haven’t been to college, like country music and are bored by classical, prefer beer to wine, enjoy reality TV shows more than masterpiece theater, or work at Walmart?  What of you are homeless or just getting out of prison?  Will your local church welcome you with open arms or ignore you at coffee hour?

The early universalists were not elitists, but the early unitarians certainly were.  As Thomas Starr King famously said, “The Universalists think God is too good to condemn them, and the Unitarians think they are too good for God to condemn.

More on the theology later, but there is a lot we can do to improve our welcome to people that are not middle class.  But first we have to talk about it.  We have to look at the core of who we are and what we want to be in the world.  Who are we really here for?  Is it the people who need us or do we want to be just a kind of club for the rapidly disappearing middle class?

Frankly, you can get better classical music at the symphony.  You can get more challenging intellectual stimulation from a lecture at the local college.  Church is much more than that.

If religious community is lemonade, then we need the lemons.  We need those who are inpain and despair.  We need their tartness and their perspectives.  We also need sugar, real sugar, not saccharine, sugar that consists of a love that will hold us all, really hold us, whoever we are and whatever our struggles.

But the main ingredient in lemonade is not lemons or sugar, but water.  We need to dig our spiritual wells deep enough so that all can drink and be satisfied. Then we can go out and dig more wells and make more lemonade to serve to the rest of the world.  Some of our churches are doing this.  Some are becoming increasingly diverse in terms of social class.  It is time to figure out why it isn’t more of them.


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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:



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.









Working Class Heroes – 9/1/13


The Origin of Labor Day by Rev. Meredith Garmon

The stock market crash of 1893 brought a depression in which 150 railroads closed and unemployment was massive. George Pullman cut his workers’ wages by 25 percent, but did not reduce rents in the town of Pullman at all.

The next year, 1894, 4,000 Pullman employees went on a wildcat strike:…. Soon 100,000 railroad workers across the country were refusing to handle trains with Pullman cars.

The strike shut down much of the nation’s freight and passenger traffic west of Detroit. Various sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking the replacement workers the railroads sought to hire. At its peak, the strike involved 250,000 workers in 27 states.

Pullman called up his friend and fellow railroad director, United States Attorney General Richard Olney. With President Grover Cleveland’s backing, troops were sent to Chicago. The federal government secured a federal court injunction against the union, …The Army moved in to stop the strikers from obstructing the trains. Violence broke out in a number of cities: millions of dollars in damages and 30 people were killed.

The Army broke the strike. …The railroads fired and black-listed all the employees who had supported the strike. As soon as the strike was over and the trains were running, President Cleveland and Congress moved quickly to make conciliation to organized labor.

Six days after the 1894 Pullman strike ended, legislation was pushed through Congress declaring that the first Monday of September was a Federal holiday, Labor Day. So we have Labor Day as a consolation prize after the Feds sent in troops to protect corporate interests and break up a strike. … And they put it in September, instead of giving official recognition to the more widely known International Workers Day on May 1, because they wanted to pull attention away from the more radical labor movements.


(some of the information in the sermon was also obtained from the above source.)

Music: “Joe Hill” as sung by Beth Dion (click)


Ah, yes, Labor Day weekend is here.  It is the last weekend to have a summer fling before the autumn comes.  Fall usually comes fast in Utah, but not this year.  We seem to be experiencing an endless summer of 90-degree weather.  So much for the climate science deniers, I wonder if they have even noticed the lingering heat and the out of control fire season.

Labor day is not just about a late summer holiday or catching the back to school sales.   It is a day to celebrate the working people of this country.

People like Joe Hill should be remembered on Labor Day, particularly here in Utah.

Joe was a union organizer and a songwriter who worked for the Industrial Workers of the World, or the Wobblies as they were known.  In 1914 he was working for the Silver King Mine in Park City.

Joe was arrested for the murder of two men in Salt Lake City.  The trial had many irregularities, but he was convicted and executed anyway by firing squad in November of 1915. It was a national controversy, with labor leaders insisting that the copper bosses framed him.  Mining is still a big deal in Utah.  We know how much power they still have today.  Look at what happened to Tim De Christopher, who went to jail for trying to save our public lands from exploitation.

Hill had said that he “didn’t want to be caught dead in Utah,” so his ashes were sent to labor groups in every other state. Huge funeral demonstrations took place throughout the nation in answer to his admonition; “Don’t mourn, organize!” He was a working class hero.

I have always wondered why we celebrate Labor Day on the first weekend in September rather than of May 1, which is the International Workers Day.

More than 80 countries celebrate it around the world, but not here in the US.

The reading this morning gave us a clue as to why.

George Pullman was not a working class hero.

He was, however, one of us too.

A few weeks ago, I told the story of the Sharps, a Unitarian couple who were true heroes in WWII as they rescued people from Nazi Germany.  Their story is one we are all proud of.  After the service, someone asked me if we had other stories in our history, ones that are not so good.

George Pullman was a lifelong Universalist.

George’s parents had both converted to Universalism, drawn to the “God is Love” message. Both of George’s older brothers became Universalist ministers.

Later in his life, he used some of his railroad money to build a Universalist Church in his hometown of Albion, New York.

History is complicated.  It is never good to gloss over the parts that might make us feel uncomfortable.

There were Unitarian abolitionists and Unitarian slave traders.  The same was true of the Universalists.  Sometimes how you apply your theology to your life depends upon who you are and the position you hold in society.  No wonder Jesus commented on how hard it was for a rich man to enter heaven.  I have wondered this week, at all the self-righteousness about Syria using chemical weapons on civilians.  Have we Americans forgotten that we are the only nation to have dropped an atomic bomb on civilians?

There is a great myth about America being a classless society, that with hard work and effort even the poorest child can aspire to wealth and power.  I am not sure if that was ever really true.  It certainly isn’t true today.

There was a time, however, when things were better.  It was the time when unions were at their strongest.

The percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States peaked in 1954 at almost 35%. Union membership in the private sector has declined since that year, down to only 12% of the labor force.  Public sector union membership is still at 37%. (Wikipedia)

People used to be proud to be union members, but now unions are blamed for everything that is wrong with the economy.

The same is true of government workers, from employees of the IRS to firefighters and schoolteachers.

When history is forgotten it can repeat itself.  Working people fought hard to win decent wages and living conditions.  People died.  What, tell me, is so wrong with people who work for a living having enough to feed their families and to go on a short vacation every year?  What is wrong with having health care and a retirement plan?  What is wrong with having programs like Social Security and Medicare?  None these things were gifts.  They were worked for and fought for.

Let me shift gears a bit here and talk about class.  We sometimes pretend that America is a classless society, that everyone is middle class.

How many of you would define yourselves as middle class?

Politicians talk about middle class families all the time.  The subject of class warfare has also come up more than once in the last few years.  I think it is time we start having some serious conversations about class in this country.

When I studied sociology in college, a thousand years ago, the term used was socio-economic class and it involved much more that how much money you made.  Your class level depended not only on your income level but also on what kind of job you did.  Was it white color or blue collar?  How much education did you have?

Rarely mentioned, but also very relevant was what was the class of the family you grew up in?  Did you listen to classical music or country?  Did your family have the wealth and connections to give you a head start by providing you with a college education or a loan to start a business?  What kind of school was it, was it Ivy League or a state college?

All of those factors create interesting differences between people and can affect how we feel about ourselves and about each other.  Yes, as Unitarian Universalists we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all, but would Joe Hill have been comfortable in one of our churches? Actually, I think he might have liked belonging to this one.   He certainly would have been pleased with how we supported the Occupy Ogden group.

I think it is time that we start thinking about class in a different way than we have before.  It fits with the idea of Labor Day as a celebration and a time to appreciate those who work.

I think everyone in this room is in fact, working class, at least the way I think it should be defined.

In my book, you are working class if you work for a living, or did so before you retired.  It doesn’t matter what you do or even how much you make.  If your income is the result of your own labor, then you are working class. So who is working class?  And kids, trust me, you will be when you get old enough to work.

By this definition, more than 99% of America is working class.  It might feel kind of weird for some of you to think of yourselves this way.  Some of you are highly educated professionals.  But a professor teaching a class is working and a doctor who sees patients is working.  Ministers work too.

If we all see ourselves as working class, then the divisions are not so important.  I have heard people make a distinction between working with your hands or with your head.  That doesn’t make any sense to me. People who do physical labor need to keep their wits about them because their lives may depend on it.  If a roofer isn’t careful, he can be killed in a fall.

I had an interesting experience when I went, almost 8 years ago now, on a service project to Biloxi, Mississippi to help with Katrina recovery.  Someone gave me a crowbar to pull nails from some boards we wanted to use on a deck we were replacing.  It worked great for a while until my face got in the way.  Stupid.  There was no permanent damage, but it was a life lesson.  Physical labor requires using your head to think – not as a target for a crowbar.

Dangerous jobs should in fact pay better than safer ones and all jobs should pay a living wage.  But that is not the way it has been going.  Wealth is becoming ever more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

There has been quite a bit of analysis done in the last couple of years on the Walton family, the owners of Walmart.  Six members of the Walton family have together a total of $102.7 billion of accumulated wealth.  (Billion not million.)  In 2007 that amount was only (it is hard to say only with that number!) 89.5 billion.  This was an increase of 22%.  At the same time median wealth for all families fell by 38.8%.  In 2010, their share of the nation’s wealth was equal to the bottom 40% of all families.  Six individual have what 49 million families have.


Those numbers make the differences between people making $12,000 per year and even half a million dollars per year, actually paltry by comparison.

The Wal-Mart family is not working class.  No one can accumulate that amount of money simply by working for a salary or a wage. In the meantime, the wages they pay their employees are low enough that most of them qualify for food stamps.

The Occupy movement was an awakening to what was happening with power and wealth America.  The strike this week by fast food workers is a more recent response.

As people of faith, I think we need to support those efforts and to encourage a rebirth of the labor movement.

Our responsive reading this morning was from Leviticus, which may have surprised some of you.  Given how much that part of the Bible is quoted to justify discrimination, you’d think more attention would be paid to lines like these:

“You shall not strip your vineyard bare, nor gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” (note it doesn’t say “documented immigrant” here, just alien.)

“You shall not defraud or rob and you should not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until the morning.”

It is way past morning.  It is time for all workers to receive their just pay.  We are all working class.  We can all be heroes.  Let’s get to work to make it so!

Ageism/Classism Doesn’t Help Church Growth

My post yesterday generated some push back in various online forums.  (Click here to read it)

There is also a class issue involved and perhaps a racial one as well.  Middle class white people of all ages can tend to have a sense of entitlement.  The truth is that most of our younger ministers grew up as Unitarian Universalists,  most commonly in white middle class liberal suburbs of major metropolitan areas .  It makes sense that those are the kind of places they would expect to serve.  It is what they have known after all.

But if we are to grow this faith, to reach out to diverse communities that are yearning for our message, we have to move out of the suburbs and stop catering exclusively to the white middle class intellectuals that make up the bulk of those suburban churches.  It isn’t our history, and it may be a cultural death trap that we have fallen into.  The very nature of suburbia is a lack of diversity.  They were designed to be that way.   People of color could be and were unable to legally purchase homes in most of them.  (read Sundown Towns by James Loewen for  more information on this.) The price of the homes meant that everyone one buying in to a subdivision had virtually the same income level.

Why are we now a largely suburban faith?  We didn’t start out that way.  The Unitarians were in cities and tended to attract the educated urban elite.  The Universalists, on the other hand, were more likely to be found in rural communities and their congregations were composed of farmers and working class people.

We can be a faith that engages a whole lot more people that we are not reaching now.

We have done a lot of work on racism within the Unitarian Universalist Association.  There is more to do, but in an increasing multicultural world we at least know we need to do more of this.

We also need to work on classism.  It is also interwoven with racism and ageism.  It is diametrically opposed to all of our religious values.  That conversation has barely begun.

I said above that most of our newer younger minsters tend to come from white middle class communities,  The same is not as true about those of us that found this faith as adults and answered the call to ministry later in life.  Many of us grew up poor or working class.  In my own case, neither of my parents graduated from high school. My mother worked in low paying service industry jobs her entire life, primarily as a waitress.  My father, who only had an 8th grade education, was able to land a job as a small town automobile painter and body man.

I got a full scholarship for a university education, back when such things were possible, and have led a relatively middle class existence since.  I have not forgotten my roots, however, and it is very easy for me to relate to the working class folks that are now coming to our church.  Drive a truck for a living?  I have 3 cousins that do that.  I know in my gut that the amount of education one has has zero to do with how smart you are, or how compassionate, or even how generous.  The job you do and the amount you are paid is irrelevant to whether or not you might be attracted to a free and empowering faith such as ours.

(As a side note, we also, as a faith, need to stress our values more around the issues of economic justice.  How many people in our congregations are working in retail or in the fast food industry?  Check it out, I suspect it is more than you might think.  Are we supportive of the fast food worker’s strike?)

When our church let the local Occupy Group camp on our lawn, it was a challenge in many ways, but much of the support for doing so came from the members of our church who themselves had been homeless, who had lost their homes in the mortgage crises, who were struggling financially.  Folks that had little money for themselves were preparing meals for the campers and attending endless meetings.

I have gone off the topic of ageism a bit, but our younger more class privileged ministers need to get out and get their hands dirty right here in this country not on exotic mission trips where they can feel righteous about how much they have accomplished.  I am not up for mission trips anymore.  I did go to Biloxi with the UUSC back in 2007.   We did some good, but there was still a disconnect.  On that trip, it was interesting how only a few of us understood any of the class issues.  The middle class people complained about the quality of the food.  It was “welfare” food, government surplus, the stuff I grew up eating at my own and my friends houses.

So to end this (for now) my response  to the new ministers looking for pulpits and complaining that older ministers need to retire is much the same as that given by Olympia Brown:

“Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it.”

And, as John Murray is said to have said, “Go into the highways and byways.”

Don’t look to do ministry only in Massachusetts, Florida, or California.  Go where you are scared to go.  That is where people need you the most.  That is where the real ministry is.

The  fabulous church I now serve had a very hard time attracting a minister – even though it was a full-time fair compensation position and a healthy vibrant social justice oriented congregation.  It doesn’t pay big bucks but the cost of living is low.  It wasn’t about the money but was instead I believe more of  a reluctance to move to a place like Utah.   It is a challenge at times.  My closest UU colleagues in the state are miles away and there are only 3 of them.  It is a conservative state.  My marriage is not valid here.  I could make a long list but I won’t.  Because this is what ministry is:  ministry should be,  heart and soul, about service.

Your age doesn’t matter.  Just your willingness to serve, wherever you happen to be called.  Open your ears.