Friday, February 8, 2008

Welcoming Working Class UUs

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.


ms. kitty said...

Excellent thoughts, Elizabeth, thanks for sharing them.

Anonymous said...

That UU's need "sensitivity training" for dealing with the working class is a frightening statement on our organization. It makes me embarrassed to be a UU.

Steve Caldwell said...

Well -- it's not surprising that Unitarian Universalists would need class "sensitivity training" -- we do have similar programs for race ("Journey Towards Wholeness") and sexual orientation and gender identity ("Welcoming Congregation"). And from my experience with our congregation, we also have a need for these programs as well.

The UUA Bookstore has a general intro level adult curriculum that can be used with adults and youth called "Weaving the Fabric of Diversity" -- one session looks at classism in our congregations using real-life case studies. The UUA Bookstore info can be found online here:

Jen said...

Okay, as a fellow-working-class person at the UU, thank you! Thanks for posting this. Here's what I thought about the points:
1. Yes! It is difficult when UU's make assumptions that you are in a higher tax bracket, especially difficult during pledge time when much of the talk is centered on how wealthy we all are.
2. Identity in your job/the business card exchange: I agree, we need some guidance in conversing without heading straight to the "What do you do for a living?" question. As a creative-worker, my id at work does follow me around a lot, and while I enjoy talking about it, it's nice to be seen as more than what you do for a living, no matter which class you come from.
3. Excellent ideas about making people feel welcome in their committee work and leadership roles! On my first go at leading a committee here, I felt very uncomfortable with my education level, as compared with the higher levels of education around the room. Guidance and acceptance is definitely what makes a difference.
5. I agree with most of the 5th points, except that I would go further to say that it is doable for working class folks to live sustainable lives with food too. All you need, is to eat lower on the food chain and learn how to cook. Maybe this would be a good class when we have a proper UU kitchen in the new facility. :)
6. For my own perspective, I disagree, but I do see how it could upset some people. When I hear people who make more money than I do talk to me about their travels or wealth, it makes me happy. One, because someone is trying to talk to me about things they care about in their own life, and Two, because they are wealthy and are grateful and appreciative for their privileges and taking joy in what they can do. This makes me happy. Plus, I love hearing about places I may never see in person myself from someone who has had that opportunity. Hmm... never bothered me. I do see why it might bother some though.

Thanks again for posting! I hope this is a WIDELY read post. This perspective is usually missing from the conversations, and is an important one.


Elizabeth J. Barrett said...

Thanks very much for your detailed comments. We do continually hear how wealthy "all" UUs are. I prefer that people also acknowledge those who are struggling. At my own congregation, we have an "Eviction Prevention Fund" to help those in our community. This fund has been used a number of times by our own members! Yes, some UUs have been on the brink of losing their homes.

A few years ago, my congregation changed our fundraising auction party into a fancy, dress-up affair. Charged $25 a person and held it at an up-scale members-only Club. Some FUS members felt excluded because they could not afford to attend. I walked into the Club with my "deer in the headlights" expression, wearing my vintage 1998 little black dress. Once I knew where to put my outerwear, where to find the restroom and my congregation, and had been greeted by someone I knew, I was perfectly comfortable.

I saw an uneasy expression on other people as they arrived, so immediately stationed myself just inside the door and greeted everyone with either their name or simply "Hello! Are you here with First Society?" and watched people relax as soon as they realized it was safe to be in such a fancy, unfamiliar setting.

The next year, organizers made it clear that we could dress however we wanted and that anyone who couldn't afford to attend could take one of the volunteer jobs and attend for free.

Last year, this was not done. Organizers had the attitude that anyone who couldn't afford to attend didn't belong at the fundraiser. They didn't understand that we build community through attending and that couples who couldn't spend $50 to get in the door then were not there to bid on anything, not even all the items/services/events that get sold for much less than $50!

Tedd said...

I am not a UU although I have been attracted to UUism for some time now I still remain on the outside.

I guess I would consider myself working class, though I have a college education I work for the government (at the local level) in an office position and make around 34K a year. The union makes the job bearable (healthcare & pension) but I do not have any real power as you put it on the job.

So if that is an appropriate definition of working class then I am working class. I have visited the 2 UU congregations in my city a couple of times and met with the minister of one of them 2 or 3 times. One is much larger than the other with 2 morning services on Sunday the other is much smaller. I would think however that the majority of the members are people who make 60k a year or more (probably much more) although I consider myself fairly intellectual, well read and intelligent and probably on par with most members in that sense ~ financially I am behind the curve. The minister I met with seemed to make that clear in our conversations to the point where I am almost felt he was discouraging me from joining his church.

I know a number of UU's at one of the churches becaue of my political and activist activities and those with whom I am aquainted don't make me feel that I am unwelcome but I don't know how adept they would truly be at welcoming and more importantly including people in lower income brackets.

I must say that for a denomination that boasts such extravagent inclusivity it comes as quite a surprise to this interested outsider that the overwhelming majority of memebers are white middle class people.

Well for the time being I remain an outsider choosing instead to fellowship at a liberal Christian church where I have felt much more welcome - though I must say I would be more comfortable at the UU church that has so many activities based in the values I care so deeply about.