16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
The Joy of a Welfare Christmas
Sermon Date:Sun, 10/16/2011
Today I am going to try to contrast the lives of the working class to those of the middle class and explain how those differences impact religious decisions and why UUs have so much trouble attracting and keeping the working class. (Or, at least I’m going to try!)
I know some portions of this talk may be difficult to hear. After all, much like racism, classism is a painful topic for UUs, and one we struggle with. However, I know this congregation and UUs as a wider group want to be more welcoming to other classes as much as other ethnic groups. This sermon is the start of a conversation here at Sugarloaf that reflects one that is rumbling throughout the greater UU community, or so Rev. Megan tells me.
I want to begin with the story of the genesis of my talk today. When I was in college and starting to question the religious traditions in which I was raised, I took a class called “Sociology of Religion”. I thought a more objective view of religion would help me understand what I was experiencing and where I wanted to go with religion.
After over a decade, I don’t remember much about the class, except for a chart that was at the end of the book. It showed the break-down of Protestant, Christian sects in the US by social class. I remember that most of the churches my parents attended were at the bottom (working to lower class) and that UUs were at the top (upper-middle to upper class).
When Les, my husband, and I started looking for a religious home following the birth of our son, I actually avoid UUs at first, assuming we would be outclassed. However, for doctrinal reasons (largely that I cannot give my oath in relation to the Apostle’s Creed with any sincerity), I cautiously attended UU services since, according to the principles, both my Christian husband and a Deist like myself should be welcome.
When we attended the New Member’s Orientation here, I remember confessing to Rev. Megan that we worried about the class issues and whether people from the working class could or would fit in at a UU congregation. Megan mentioned that she would be interested to know how Sugarloaf, and UUs overall, could be more welcoming to people from the working class. So, being who I am, I took her at face value and have observed the services here for the last year and a half, making mental notes about when someone from my background would be uncomfortable or feel unwelcome.
With that introduction, I am going to quickly describe a little of the demographics and do a small contrast between the middle and working class before moving into the heart of the talk – how we at Sugarloaf can be more welcoming.
It is very hard to categorize and define the working class/working poor, and the information about these groups varies widely, but according to a best guess based on the US Census, about one in every three families in the US is considered to be “low income” and about 43% of families with at least one minority parent were low income.
The earlier exercise gave some of the demographics associated with many within this group – likely to have several children, more likely to have not completed a high school diploma or stopped their education after high school, probably in positions considered blue-collar or pink collar, and, at one time or another, might have had to accept some government assistance to get by. During 2003, two-thirds of those classified as working poor were employed in one of the following Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational groups: Service; sales and office; or production, transportation, and material moving.
Those are the demographics, but they really don’t tell you much about the people who live these lives every day anymore than giving my income, job description and family status tells you anything about me. I am going to use some of the responses and analysis from the definitive published set of interviews of the working class – the book Worlds of Pain, which I used for the reading.
First, in case you are wondering why I combined the working class and working poor, it is for the simple reason that the poor cannot be viewed in isolation from working class as poverty is often what happens to the working class because of either unemployment or low-wage jobs. In other words, a layoff, a serious illness in the family, an accident, a death – such events can thrust a stable family into instability for a while. Similarly, a job that pays enough to meet the bills and live with some minimum comforts can mean, for some, the shift from instability to stability. Because of this instability in working life, many families have to rely on welfare, at least for brief periods, during the early years of their marriage. To quote one interviewee in Worlds of Pain: “After a while, things got so bad (I couldn’t work, and he wasn’t working) that we signed up for welfare. I’ll never forget how ashamed I was.”
Some families struggle desperately and, most of the time, successfully to remain among the “respectable” poor. Others may give up the fight and, more often than not, escaped their pain in drinking, violence or desertion. The former the author terms “settled living” and the latter are “hard living”. In almost every “settled living” family, there are ”hard-living” brothers, sisters or cousins who, while scorned, are omnipresent and painful reminders of the precariousness of the “settled-living” lifestyle.
The difficult realities of their lives often limit their very ability to envision a future. Unlike the middle class, who typically plan heavily for the future (saving for college, retirement or other long-term goals), many in the working class often cannot plan as they do not know what the future will hold. It is not, as many misconceive, that they will not plan, but for most it is difficult to do more than meet the bills and other daily necessities when there is the ever-present concerns about layoffs, firings or jobs being off-shored.
That is look at the parents, so how do most working class children compare to their middle class counterparts? Of the people Rubin talked to, 40% had at least one alcoholic parent (usually the father); almost as many were children of divorce or desertion; and 10% spent part of their lives in institutions or foster homes because their parents were unable, unwilling or unfit to care for them. In my youth, it was not uncommon for relatives to have “taken in” a child from unfit parents, much as you see in the TV series King of the Hill, where the primary characters have custody of their niece. When a child’s experience suggest that the adults on whom he must depend for survival have little control, his fears of being unprotected and overwhelmed may become so great that he must either deny or repress his experience or succumb to terror.
Many parents who must meet each day with worry and fear are too preoccupied with the existential and material realities of life to have much left in the way of emotional support for their children. To these parents, it often seems the deepest possible expression of their love to just do what they must to keep the family together. Being poor colors every dimension of life for most in the working class/working poor and, for both parents and children, contributes powerfully to a world filled with pain, anger, fear and loneliness – a world over which neither the adults nor children have much control.
The teenage years are also vastly different. Extended adolescence is a common professional, middle class phenomenon, whereas most working class youth grow up fast. The “failure to launch” scenario Rev. Megan discussed in an earlier sermon does not usually happen in working class families: most parents simply cannot afford to support children after they have reached adulthood. (In fact, there are many who withdraw their youth from high school upon turning 16 because they need the money the youth can bring from a full time job more than they think the child needs schooling.) For the working class, the typical age for a first marriage is 18 for women and 20 for men. About ¼ of women and 1/5 of the men in Rubin’s book were on their 2nd marriage. Getting married is one of the major routes to becoming an independent adult and gaining the privileges associated with that status, which is another reason that few want to linger at home after turning 18. (Once you are married, the money is “yours” rather than going to support your parent’s household.)
When it comes to work and success, the contrasts are most clear. Many working class employees are repeatedly told that “You’re not getting paid to think”. To survive this environment, most adults need to develop discipline to go to work every day and keep going back year after year. In addition, the vast majority believe in the work ethic and the American mythos that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if only they have the will and the brains. They know they have the will. There is little left but to accept that they don’t have the brains – a devastating self-image. Some find the respite they need in angry explosions, some in deep withdrawals. Contrast that to middle class jobs where you are encourage to find a vocation, and often one’s job asks too much of you.
So how does their childhood, adolescence and work life impact religious decisions? In general, the working class/working poor are cautious, conservative, and church-going. Based on the constant repetition of you are not paid to think, many prefer a religion that does not require them to think, and one with emphasis on the values needed in their life – rules, obedience, discipline and conformity. In addition, as most are looking forward to the escape from the constant running and drudgery of life, an escapist religion, one promising an afterlife of no work, is also appealing. In essence, most believe that they need to do the right thing even though you don’t want to do it, so that you (and those you love) will not be punished for your failure; instead, they will be rewarded with an eternity of peace and no worries.
Because of this need for rigidity in faith in so many lives, the question I have for this congregation is can you welcome someone who may not wish to debate with you, who has firm ideas and may not be interested in learning or experiencing practices outside their comfort zone? Likewise, there seems to be a real assumption here at Sugarloaf that acceptance of others means everyone must participate in their rituals or activities. I disagree: neither my husband nor I feel that there is anything MANDATORY about services or rituals at this congregation. This is not the Catholic Church with its requirements to attend on Christmas and Easter or be expelled. Can we make the mind-set change to accept rigidity in one’s view and an unwillingness to participate in certain rituals?
Can we meet the needs of people who do not come on Sunday looking for challenging questions to situations they do not have the time to worry about (global warming, social issues or inspiration) and instead spend sermons addressing the basic morals of right and wrong (and the slipperiness of that slope)? I believe we can demonstrate that having no doctrine does not mean that UUs have no morals or ethics. We can definitively state that our religion can support those same needs for self-control and doing the hard thing even though we do not preach the “straight and narrow”. And, we need to uphold that promise by having sermons, RE Classes and chalice group discussions that talk about and celebrate doing the hard thing or having self-control even when it is difficult. We brushed over this lightly a few weeks ago in our Ingathering when we talked about courage, but I think we can hone in on it more and advertise this to the working class – Sugarloaf is here for you, too.
Let me give you an example of how having the Working Class or Working Poor attending Sugarloaf might change the dynamics: there is a member of this congregation who told me a story about a UU church she previously attended. One Sunday, a man visited and throughout the service, he interjected “Hallelujahs” and “Amens”. To the amazement of this member, at the end of the service, he requested to become a member of the congregation. Could and would you be willing to welcome someone who “does church” differently from the way it is practiced now? Could we dedicate a service to those who want more interactivity, movement and practical sermons?
Another way that the mindset of many in the working class affects religion is the belief in an almighty, omnipotent God who is very personal. I remember people asking God to help with everything from a raise to pimples when I was growing up. And they believed that God was able to do all of these things. When you work in a place where your boss has full control over whether you work (and therefore can pay the bills), why should God be any less powerful? I know there are a number of atheists at Sugarloaf, but can we welcome those who believe in a personal God and make them a part of our congregation? If so, be prepared for more comments about “I’ll pray for you” and the sincere offering that this offer entails. The offer to request intercession from the Almighty who can reach down and solve your problem is a powerful gift, and one that means a paramount sense of empathy and concern. Can we accept this and other “personal God” statements floating around Sugarloaf?
One well-known fact about a number of working class churches is the belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible. To borrow a line from an article in UU World by Doug Muder “God had spoken, and His word was law. If reason and conscience told me something different from what was written in the Bible, then I’d better think things through again.” Somehow, at least in an unspoken manner, UUs imply that this attitude is stupid. Again, I am not a literalist nor is my husband (and that separates us widely from our families), but the implication that my parents are stupid for believing the Bible is pretty large insult. Our principles about inherent worth and dignity and the right for everyone to find their own truth and meaning, include the literalists, too, with esteem and without judgment. Belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible should be welcomed with the same respect as belief in Keynesian economics, Socratic philosophy and Chaos theory: all are a filter through which we view the world, truth and our relationships to others; have equal validity; and fair criticism from opponents. A chalice group that reviews the Bible and its philosophy, for example, would be a solid contribution to Sugarloaf that would be more welcoming to those coming to UUism from a literalist background.
One topic that anyone who knows me knew was going to come up was meditation. There is a culture in much of the working class that heavily disdains meditation. It is something that only hackneyed people do. I frequently joke that I may not be a real UU as I don’t do meditation, and it is often the longest part of any service for me. I reflect, I contemplate, I think, or a dozen other synonyms, but that term just has a very negative connotation for me and most others from the Working Class and Working Poor. I spend the time looking out the window, finding the next hymn, looking at my watch or thinking about what I need to do in the afternoon. Can we consider more services or a single service without meditation, to rename the section of the service or even encourage those who pray to use this time for prayer?
As I said at the start, I hope this is the beginning of a conversation and that it inspires the congregation to think about how we do our services and where it can change to be more welcoming. Reaching out to a new group is not easy, nor is changing the outlook and attitude of our congregation. Our principles set a high bar for us to achieve (like any good set of religious principles), and I think Sugarloaf can pole-vault over that bar. We can truly provide much needed respect and dignity, accept a different route to spiritual growth and allow for a search for truth and meaning among the Working Class and Working Poor.