Why Talk About Class?

Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees, Feb. 2, 2020

Where is our holy church? Where is our holy church where race and class unite as equal persons in the search for beauty, truth, and right? (ref. to Opening Hymn #113 “Where Is Our Holy Church?”)

As much as talk in the United States emphasizes everyone is equal, equality is an elusive goal. Even among religious institutions. Sunday morning is among the most segregated of all times and places. Even among Unitarian Universalists. One of the ways in which we are segregated is by social class. Sometimes, as Rev. Alicia Forde says, “it feels like We are eyeing one another across a great divide.” (ref. to Opening Words “Across a Great Divide” www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/btwwda/workshop3/166058.shtml)

Unitarian Universalism is often stereotyped as not only a middle class religion, but an upper middle class one. Members score high on a combination of four scales that measure class. These four scales are: income, wealth, educational level, and job prestige. A person’s place on the scale combines to provide access to social power or social capital.

There is some truth to this characterization of Unitarian Universalism.  But like other stereotypes, this one leads to some damaging assumptions. These implicit and explicit assumptions about social class in our UU congregations keep us separate and erect barriers to our actual ability to get to know each other and be more united in our search for beauty, truth, and right.

Assumptions about who is a Unitarian Universalist and who is not create a divide and foster feelings of insufficiency and deficiency and even guilt—in ourselves and each other.

These assumptions render invisible the many differences of social class among us. The assumptions and expectations Unitarian Universalists too often bring to social class suggest what is valued as normative and even what holds a higher value. Too often the attitude is that everyone is aspiring to be middle class or wealthy or has a college education. 

I think so often of a beloved elder in this community who shared with me that they did not have a college education. They told me, I know I’m the only one. They were not the only one. But it can feel that way when the general sense is that everyone here is college educated.

Such assumptions minimize and devalue the presence of those we assume are not here and masks the important contributions individuals who are working class or poor bring to our movement. And there are many in our congregations. There are many in this congregation. There are people who are hourly wage earners, under or unemployed, living on disability, without a college education, or who are financially unstable. Most of the time, we just don’t talk about it.

Why? Well, it can be embarrassing and awkward. Talking about social class in our congregations and in this church tends to make people feel uncomfortable. There is often discomfort and assumptions on all sides about the differences. And also, there can be a lack of real awareness. A person’s own background and class can be so internalized as “the way things are” that it isn’t visible to them.

Pierre Bourdieu, a French philosopher, has had a tremendous influence on social theory. His concept of “habitus” has provided insight into social class. According to Bourdieu, we have deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions based on our life experiences, based on the way we were raised, and notably social class. Habitus is the water we swim in. 

The experiences we have as children and based on social class can be vastly different and lead us each to see the world very differently. And differently isn’t better or worse. Our social “habitus” gives us strengths and weaknesses. To see that requires an intentional process of discovery. 

The challenge for us is to begin to see that water we are swimming in. I hope each of us will spend some time reflecting on our own class stories. 

I want to take a few minutes this  morning to share a bit of my class story. Parts of it some of you have heard before.

My mother was college-educated, but she spent most of her working life as a high school secretary. She was the lowest paid administrative person at the school, my high school. I knew this and so did everyone else in our small town. Why? Because every year they published the administrative salaries in the local paper. This both angered and embarrassed my father. 

In addition to her full-time job, my mother did sewing for other people, mostly women, on the side for extra income. The women that came to our house for seamstress help not only were able to afford clothes we could never afford, they could also afford to pay to have them custom fitted.

My father had a high school education and took some business classes. As a young man, he worked in a variety of hourly jobs, at a bakery, taking photographs for the newspaper, and working in a factory. He also worked at the Hershey Boys Home as a house parent. 

But for most of my life, he was self-employed—because working for other people squashed his spirit and made him feel demeaned. His business was installing storm windows and doors for people. He used the unheated barn on our rural property for his business.

As a family we did not socialize except with our extended family. We went to church regularly. My parents did not drink or dance. We didn’t take family vacations. It wasn’t part of our culture, and we couldn’t afford it. We had family meals and played a lot of board games, especially monopoly and parcheesi. My parents were Democrats in a predominantly Republican town.

My parents were readers and instilled in me a love of reading and a thirst for education. So now I have four degrees, a bachelor’s, two master’s and a doctor of ministry. It was my education and then professional life that stirred up the waters I swim in. The first time I flew in an airplane was in my mid-twenties as part of a job. I was terrified, by the way. 

The first time I went to the symphony was in my late thirties when my boss and his wife invited me to attend with them. It was around the same period in my life that I saw my first Broadway show, Les Miserables. That I organized for myself. Since then, I have travelled abroad and experienced music, arts, and cultural events. I love those experiences.

Because of the way I was raised, I place a high value on day to day living and being able to have unstructured extended time at home. I appreciate solitude, enjoy meals at home, and playing cribbage. I learned the value of deferred gratification and economizing. Having a fancy car or big house is unimportant to me. Books and education are priorities. Having a savings account means financial security. I also credit my upbringing with providing me with a high level of resiliency.

I recognize that my social class today is middle class but my “habitus” does not correspond to that of many of my middle class peers—either professionally or personally. In social settings I can feel like a fish out of water, either awkward or like a bit of a fraud. I don’t intuitively know middle class social rules and norms. They aren’t part of the water I swim in.

Do you have an awareness of the water you swim in? Cultivating that self-awareness is foundational to personal development. I hope you will each spend some time reflecting on your own class story. I hope you will also begin to share your story and learn the stories of others. Sharing our class stories breaks down divides and furthers the bonds that unite us.

As part of our ongoing practice of getting to know each other beneath the surface, I encourage us all to learn to know ourselves and each other in new ways. Rather than welcoming the coats we wear, how can we welcome who we are? (ref. to the morning’s story “Mullah Nasruddin Feeds His Coat,” www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/tales/session6/123344.shtml)

Another way to think about is, rather than asking each other, “what do you do for a living” a more spacious question might be: “what do you like to do?” “How did you discover your love for that activity?” On a Sunday after church, I often ask people, and maybe I’ve asked you this question, “what are you off to do now?” or “what do you have planned for the rest of your day?” Some are heading off for a nap, a movie, a family outing, and some are going to work. 

Just imagine what we might learn about ourselves and each other if we learn to welcome who we are! Amen. And blessed be.

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