How can we become better at welcoming working class or economically disadvantaged visitors once they show up at our congregations? How can we help them want to become members? I've been contemplating this for awhile, especially after reading Doug Muder's blog post.
It would be great to agree on a definition of what working class means in the US today before going any farther. I’ve been reading that the best way to define socio-economic class is by examining how much power and autonomy people have on the job. I’m all for that! Someone working in a law firm with the title “librarian,” earning $30,000 a year and attempting to please sixteen bosses (partner-lawyers) is not middle class. S/he may have a bachelor’s degree, but lacks power. Having responsibility and accountability without any authority describes many working class jobs.
Here are a few modest tips I wrote, tips for welcoming working class people when they visit our UU congregations. I’m basing these tips on my own experience in addition to the experience of the working class UUs I know. Even though I am now middle class, I am going to use the pronoun “we” when referring to working class people. This is partly because I first visited a congregation while working class, but mostly to demonstrate that many people with working class backgrounds find that they continue to identify themselves as working class, never feeling entirely comfortable with middle class values. If you are currently working class or were when you visited a UU congregation, I'd love to hear your critique of my little tips based on your experience (but all are welcome to comment, as usual).
1. Acknowledge that working class UUs exist in our congregations already. This is an important first step. If Unitarian Universalists continue to say that UUs are all middle class and above, all highly-educated and all privileged, they will immediately alienate working class people. Some of us like to dress up a little bit for church because we must wear a uniform or jeans on the job, but some of us like to dress casually because we have office jobs and must look professional at work. Do not assume that you have a working class divining stick and can tell just by looking.
2. Working class people do not have our identities wrapped up in our jobs. We just have to pay the bills. This means that when we are at UU congregations on Sunday, we probably don’t want to discuss careers or jobs, neither yours nor ours. Please do not ask boring questions like “what do you do for a living?” during our fellowship time. “What do you enjoy doing when you’re not here?” is a good question, but the wise UU begins by asking what we thought/how we felt about the worship service we experienced. Not just what we thought of the sermon, because a worship service is much more than merely a sermon! Then listen carefully, without judgment, to the answer. If we were not raised UU, ask what changed that led us here. If we all learn to approach everyone in a more meaningful way after our worship services, we will be more aware that Unitarian Universalism is not about exchanging business cards – it is about nurturing our spiritual lives.
3. We may be more likely to be eager to explore our gifts and talents and to learn new skills at church than professionals may be. Of course, if we’re working two jobs or caring for children this may be impossible. On the other hand, many working class people would never be allowed to chair a committee, run a meeting, collaborate on a fun project or make a presentation at our jobs, but we might want to learn how to do that at church, if the atmosphere assures acceptance, encouragement and some guidance. It may be that growing into a leadership position while being mentored by a lay leader is just what we need to feel empowered in our lives!
4. Be open to the possibility that we may be able to teach you something valuable about life. As UUs, we are invited to reject the dominant culture of individualism and ultra-independence in favor of relationships and interdependence. Working class people might not use those specific words to describe what we know, but especially if we’ve experienced poverty, we tend to understand how to create relationships and know that humans are interdependent better than some individualistic, upper middle class members. For example, because I already knew how to welcome people into relationship, create community and model shared ministry (which is interdependency at its best), I easily grasped the concept of Covenant Group Ministry. I went on to help found the program at my UU congregation and before long was the key person keeping the program going.
5. We may help you turn away from wealth acquisition and mindless consumerism and instead embrace sustainability. Concern for the environment and attempting to live sustainably go hand-in-hand with spending less while enjoying life. This coupling does not work for food (because locally-grown organic food is often more expensive), but for many other resources, the most sustainable way to do something is also the method that costs the least. Both sustainability and saving money require thinking creatively, exercising delayed gratification, feeling the fragile abundance of life and being grateful. Whenever we don’t purchase something, carpool or use public transportation, drink tap water instead of soda or bottled water, carry a re-useable covered mug for coffee (and water) and forgo expensive vacations and home expansion projects, we are caring for our natural resources. Shopping at secondhand stores saves money and keeps items out of landfills while revealing our consumer society in all its waste and excess. Our seventh principle makes our responsibility as consumers clear: plan each purchase carefully, with patience and creativity, reusing resources as much as possible.
6. Be mindful of inadvertently flaunting your wealth by discussing your latest or upcoming exotic trip abroad, your vacation home, your child-care provider or your housekeeper with a visitor or member, because it may seem like one-up-person-ship. I recently told another member what my spouse and I did for our tenth anniversary. Unfortunately, her response was to tell me about an anniversary trip to Venice. That ended the conversation.
7. Working class folks may be more likely to directly experience the "Spirit of Live and Love Whom We Know by Many Names" as a benevolent support in our lives. This may be a result of not feeling in control of our destiny or not being able to provide our families with every advantage. This often means that we are more comfortable with God-language and the language of reverence.
May the light within you reach toward another's light.