Friday, March 20, 2009

My take on class within UUism

I had a conversation yesterday with a guy in my church who is worried about losing his house.

It came up pretty naturally, I asked how he was doing and he said "Well, other than I might lose my house, great." He explained how he and his wife and his kids got into the situation, which isn't terribly relevant but you'd be sympathetic if I told you.

"Ya know," I said, "My impression is that the mortgage companies aren't in any hurry to take houses. The last thing they need is another one. If you call yours up, you might be able to work something out."

He allowed as to how he was planning to do this and someone else he knew had made a deal with a mortgage company that would work for him and he hoped he would be able to do something similar. I said I hoped so too.

At that point, a lady who had been nearby chimed in with how she was dealing with HER debt. The whole time I was fighting the urge to pull out my checkbook. But what theCSO and I have to spare isn't enough to help anyway and I'm defining "spare" somewhat loosely in that context anyway. The conversation didn't go on too much longer than that, but we talked about the tough economic times and how they were affecting the people we knew. I feel closer to those two people now than I ever have before.

This is one thing I don't get about the whole "class within UUism" debate. People draw those "white collar vs. blue collar" lines with such enthusiasm, but as far as I can tell, a lot of the problems are the same or similar when we actually start talking to each other. Especially in this economic climate. A law firm in my area has had six rounds of layoffs. Tell me white collar folks and blue collar folks don't have something to talk about these days.

I read on another blog about people saying that questions like "what do you do for a living?" and "where do you live?" make people who have less classy jobs and live in less classy neighborhoods feel insecure. I have no idea what to do about this because as far as I know, this is not intellectual snobbery, this is the human condition. I have a job that requires brains but not a college degree and I live in an unremarkable neighborhood in a nice zip code. There are lots of people I know with fancier jobs and houses and lots of people with less fancy jobs and houses.

The point isn't who does what and lives where as a matter of social rank, the point is that I know at all what they do and where they live because it gives us things to talk about and local concerns to discuss and bond over. We have to know something about the lives that our fellow congregants are living to really connect with them.

Besides, I bet if your answers to those two questions are "I'm a tax lawyer to the wealthy" and "I live in the fanciest neighborhood in town," half the listeners are thinking "I bet you don't get any time with your kids and you WAY overpaid for your house."



epilonious said...

Now now.

The tax lawyer overpaid for the nanny too.

Anonymous said...

I think you are right - about the human condition. I think the idea that the great big subjects are taboo (money, religion, sex) is part of what divides us. If we opened up about who we really are I think we would see MORE similarities not less. So, one solution to our class issues is to talk more - share more - listen more.

Bill Baar said...

Foreclosurse hits all sorts of income levels. It's far from a "working class" crisis using the term in any Marxist sense.

My mom lives in a trailer in Florida surrounded by empty town houses left from people buying second homes plus a third to flip in a year.

When Obama spoke in Ft Meyers, and then Elkheart Indiana --where they make million dollar mobile homes-- he was speaking at the epicenters of the housing bust. The key sociological divide was age: boomers overextended on housing; not workering class v capitalist class.

Frugal boomers, like those in my Church for example, are set in their homes, and have pensions as school teachers, public employes and so on... they weather these crisis.

If you want some key categories to plop folks into, and categories that I think predict behavoirs and also represent haves, and have-lesses, I'd argue the critical ones are single-mothers raising kids alone, and then generational.

Blue Collar v While Collar is pretty meaningless in an age where folks work from home in their pajamas.

Those 40% of out-of-wedlock births in the news represent women taking a huge economic risk. They are today's proletariat.

Robin Edgar said...

"People draw those "white collar vs. blue collar" lines with such enthusiasm, but as far as I can tell, a lot of the problems are the same or similar when we actually start talking to each other."

I expect that the reason *that* line gets drawn in U*U circles is because "blue collar" people as a distinct minority in U*Uism. In fact I can imagine that *some* U*U churches have virtually no "blue collar" types in their membership rolls. Interestingly enough, someone making an inane comment on one of my U*UTube videos to the effect that "Water Communion" was one of "the most beautiful" religious ceremonies he had ever seen had me thinking about U*U "Water Communion" within the context of classism just last night. I somewhat facetiously responded that "Water Communion" often consists of a bunch of well-to-do WASU*Us bragging about their summer vacations and went on to add -

Can U*Us say "classism"?

as a parting shot to that observation. What if someone simply does not have the means to travel somewhere during during their summer vacation. What if the most exotic water that they can hope to contribute to "Water Communion" is the chlorinated water from their local public swimming pool? It occurred to me last night that "Water Communion" is inherently "classist" because it assumes that everyone will be able to contribute water from *travels* done during their summer vacation. I can see *some* "blue collar types" to say nothing of some "welfare types" feeling left out during "Water Communion" because they have no water from *travels* to contribute to it.

There is no question that classism is a problem in U*U "churches" in fact I believe that classism *probably* played a role in the recent 'Weapons Policy' fiasco at the Franklin Unitarian*Universalist Fellowship of North Carolina.

Robin Edgar said...

"Blue Collar v While Collar is pretty meaningless in an age where folks work from home in their pajamas."

To say nothing of out of their pajamas. . . ;-)

Chalicechick said...

(((What if the most exotic water that they can hope to contribute to "Water Communion" is the chlorinated water from their local public swimming pool? )))

I've certainly heard lots of people make those complaints about water communions before and on some level, I agree.

But at the same time, I've never been to a water communion where there weren't multiple people who put in water from a local stream or a public swimming pool or their own backyard hose. Usually multiple people do this and I suspect that it's only going to get more common that given the carbon cost of traveling, fancy pleasure vacations are somewhat out of fashion even among the wealthy. I went to one once where a mother put in some water her son had sent back from Iraq.

Now I'm not the water communion's biggest fan, but anyway having some local water in there is part of the point that all the water in the world comes together and is part of the same system.

who once added water from a local stream that she had spent the summer working to save and clean up.

Stephanie said...

Your point about actually talking is a good one. A friend of mine's church had a marriage and money seminar and again I thought, boy, that would be useful for UUs too.

I don't think it's the questions about what you do or where you live that are the problem. It's the judgments that are then made, and the fact that the conversations tend to stop at that point.

Bill Baar said...

I would never ask anyone what they do for a living. At least not without knowing them for a while...and then it would probably be useless question.

I think we in the midwest are prone to asking people where they are from... and we mean which neigborhood, or high school did you attend.

I've belonged to my Church for going ten years I would think, and I'd say most people I know there...I don't have a clue what they do... I do know the retired ones and there are plenty of those.

Chalicechick said...

Another point on Blue Collar vs. White Collar:

Bob is a young guy with maybe a little college, maybe not, who likes to fix things. He gets a job fixing things. He's good at his job, and the most talented guy he works with takes him under his wing.

Five years later, Bob is the expert. People who need things fixed come to him. Maybe he starts his own business, maybe he works for a big company fixing what's broken there.

If Bob fixing plumbing, he's blue collar.

If Bob fixes computers, he's white collar, though he doesn't necessarily make any more money.

It just seems so arbitrary.


Chalicechick said...

Another example, I go to church with a lady who, right out of high school, got a job working for a patent law firm. She was apparently good at her job and has been working for patent firms ever since.

Given that she works for a big patent law firm and has decades of experience as a patent secretary, my guess is she makes at least twice what I make. Probably more. As far as I know being a patent secretary is one of the higher paying jobs you can have without a college degree.

But she's never been to college.

Blue collar? Yes? No?

Certainly she's not embarassed to mention what part of town she lives in.


Stephanie said...

Now I'm wondering if the blue collar v. white collar is some sort of false dichotomy distracting us from what really matters, which seems to be the notion of being welcoming as a denomination.

This is not to say that I think there aren't class issues.

David Throop said...

Years ago, a woman named Debbie attended my church for about a year; then she fell away. I ran into her at a store. She said that she'd felt welcomed in our church, but that she never felt like she fit in. She had an engineering degree and a civil servant job, but somehow that didn't make her feel like she was in her element. I've seen other folks like Debbie come and go from our churches.

Class is more than wealth, income, education. It also is a set of concerns, attitudes. It's our political and social views. It's how we feel about gay marriage and how important a topic we feel gay marriage in the larger scheme of things.

Individual attitudes aren't strong class markers, but collections of them are. Our averaged UU attitudes towards NPR, abortion, Sams Club, vegans, water rights, Fox news, polyester, reparations for slavery, handing out condoms in OWL, Lincoln Towncars, Mexican immigration -- this constellation of concerns is a class marker just as much as is driving a Lexus, wearing Prada or having a fancy zipcode.

This is part of the story about how some folks come to our congregations and say "I feel like I've always belong here." And Debbie can come for a year, agree with our theology, and yet never feel like she's one of us.

The water communion and the questions at coffee hour are part of the UU Class Issue, true. But I think it goes much deeper than that. Water communions can be changed relatively easily. But all the more subtle class markers - the very topics that we choose to discuss - are part of the way that we exclude people. There would be enormously difficult to change. And I doubt that we should.

You see, the subtle class markers that exclude some are also part of the way that we bind ourselves together into a coherent community. I suspect that if my church really did manage to change the subtle cues that alienated Debbie, we would lose a dozen long term families before we'd changed enough to make her feel like "Hey, this is where I always belonged."

Chalicechick said...

That's another thing I don't get about this issue. I disagree with the stereotyped UU view on like half the issues you list, David, and it's never held me back from feeling like I fit in because the theological connection is there.

And I'm far from the only one with significant disagreements.

I don't mean to insult the Debbies of the world but I don't understand them.

I mean, sure, the fact that Adam Sandler movies tend to be box office smashes makes me threaten to expatriate, but that doesn't mean I actually feel I don't fit in here in America and leave.


Anonymous said...

It is true that UUs can be snarky about engineers, based on my limited personal experience. I just try to ignore things like that.

Robin Edgar's comment on the water communion was truly insightful - I have attended many of them, and never picked up on the obvious truth he points out.

best wishes

Dudley Jones

Bill Baar said...

I never heard of water communion before... I don't think we do one at our church.

I can't recall one at Unity Temple Oak Park in the 80s either. I would avoid anything with the word "communion" in it so maybe that's why.

I should dust off my copies of Veblen and do a post on his Theory of the Leisure Class.

What most UUs call class, is really differention based on what people do with their income (and time) vs how they obtain that income (labor vs bond coupons and stock dividends).

One of my fears with this class talk among UUs, is you do see on occassion a nasty habit of UUs talking of people as "others", as objects, when I'm not quite sure those folks would see themselves as any different from us UUs.

I've wondered how I would feel bringing such a friend from one of these "objectified" classes to Church and having that otherness pointed out to them... in as kindly a way as possible...

Robin Edgar said...

I do try to be insightful Dudley. If only more U*Us would responsibly pay attention to my diverse insightful observations about various problems within The U*U Movement, and then responsibly act upon them. . . The Wikipedia entry for Water Communion makes it clear that it the water is supposed to be from "travels". That is always how I understood "Water Communion" and that is how it was practiced at the Unitarian Church of Montreal which is largely composed of 97% White upper-middle class, or at least "97% White Collar" WASU*Us. If some U*U congregations have moved towards accepting local water that is all well and good but my point still stands in terms of "traditional" U*U "Water Communion" as it is no doubt practiced in many other U*U churches. In fact, even in the context of CC's scenario the class divisions between "haves" and "have nots" when it comes to travel are still obvious even if the "have nots" can participate in "Water Communion" by contributing local water from a swimming pool etc.

Chalicechick said...

If you guys hadn't thought through the class implications of water communion before then I'm assuming the joke about the guy who made fun of people who were pretentious about water communion by standing up, dumping in his water and saying

"This is from a secret holy spring on top of a mountaintop in a rural part of Mexico that I traveled to this summer. The locals call the spring 'El Banyo"

will be new to you.


Chalicechick said...

And of course assuming "Blue collar people are so poor that they can't afford to travel anywhere at all over the summer, so we should change water communion to protect them from having to hear that other people travel to other places." isn't classist at all.

Umm... Didn't any of you people grow up blue collar or know anyone who did? Blue collar people take vacations too. They may be to Grandma's rather than the south of France, but they still travel.


Bill Baar said...

Chicago's an immigrant town. Workers of all incomes from all over the world. World travel hardly a rich person thing.

David Throop said...

I turned my next response into a full blogpost: Who are Our People?

Stephanie said...

I think the water communion was pretty thoroughly discussed in the past, wasn't it? I think it can be done much better than the variations I've seen. I'm not sure if it's classist as much as it's pretentious and dumb in the varieties I've seen.

However, the idea about a collection of attitudes resonates with me.

Joel Monka said...

Class isn't just a UU issue; very few faiths have a wide spread in any one congregation. For example, I was raised Baptist; and while there are plenty of Baptist millionaires, there sure weren't any in OUR congregation! In fact, All Souls is far more diverse than the Baptist church I was raised in- one family has a chair at Butler University in their name, another family we have given rides to church to because they don't own a car.

Robin Edgar said...

I think I may have seen that joke once before CC. I guess I did a variation of it when I forgot my water at home and decided to mix a bit of my own saliva in with everyone else's travel water after explaining that it probably still contained some of the molecules from the water that I drank during my travels. What a terrible crime that was. It was only years later that I heard that some Montreal U*Us had mythologized that onto yours truly "spitting" into the "Water Communion" bowl. As may be seen in this U*UTube video.

I have thought of the classism aspects of "Water Communion" long before. I just mentioned them again because some U*U dolt described "Water Communion" as one of "the most beautiful" ceremonies he had ever seen in his life. . .

:Umm... Didn't any of you people grow up blue collar or know anyone who did? Blue collar people take vacations too. They may be to Grandma's rather than the south of France, but they still travel.

I am aware of that CC and would be the first to acknowledge that *some* blue collar workers are better off financially than *some* white collar workers. I was clearly talking more about rich vs. poor U*Us more than "white collar vs. blue collar" lines, as should be clear from my comments.

PG said...


I think CC was referring to income differences too -- poor people go places. They may not go far, but even people living in Mumbai a la Slumdog Millionaire occasionally break from their daily routine to go somewhere different, often somewhere with water (like a relative's house, as CC provided as an example).

Chalicechick said...

Yeah, also, keep in mind there were ten straight years where I never made took a pleasure vacation in the "go someplace, stay in a hotel" sense.

That said, in grad school when I lived on $10,000 a year theCSO and I saved up carefully for our trips, but we did attend my brothers' high school graduation and made it to his parents' house for Christmas.

Even with the incomes we have now, he vacations by going to Science fiction conventions and I go visit friends or go to GA. Those places have water, none are particularly expensive if you're careful. For years we didn't even see the point of regular vacations and the associated hassles.

(After my extremely stressful first semester of law school we did see the need to go off by ourselves for a week, so in our entire marriage we have taken one vacation. But it was in the middle of winter and the water communion never occurred to me.)

There will always be people who use the water communion as a chance to brag, but those people will probably brag anyway. Most people who don't take any trips at all could afford to at least go camping or visit a friend and are simply choosing not to possibly because they view big vacations as more trouble than they are worth like theCSO and I do.

And as a law student who kinda specializes in fine distinctions, I suppose I can see the difference between "placing your saliva in with everyone else's water with an explanation" and "spitting in everyone else's water," but I can understand how this difference would be lost on some people.

Truth be told, I'm kinda hinky about bodily fluids myself and am frankly pretty icked out even though I understand the logic behind what you did. And using semen, urine, blood or snot would have been just as logical and might have but me in a dead faint had I been there.

I'm glad the saliva thing didn't catch on as a trend.


Robin Edgar said...

It wasn't intended to. I simply forgot to bring the water that I had intended to bring. One of the points that I tried to make to Juan Vera in the video is that water from the ocean, lakes and rivers, to say nothing of chlorinated swimming pools. . . contains trace amounts of all of those things CC. Even if it is only fish semen, fish urine, fish blood or fish snot, which it isn't. . . Obviously no one at the Unitarian Church of Montreal, at least none of the complainers anyway, read Frank Herbert's 'Dune' or they might have been honored by the fact that I shared my own personal water in the 'Water Communion.

Chalicechick said...

I never intended to suggest that it was illogical or that your intentions were anything but pristine. I intended to suggest that it grossed me out anyway.

This may be a personal thing.

But yeah, if I had forgotten my water, I would have just sat the water communion out and watched everyone else, which is usually what I do anyway.

The only water communion that has ever meant much to me was the one that happened mere days after Hurricaine Katrina as water was destroying a city that I had once lived in and had not liked but still cared about.


kimc said...

When is a cigar just a cigar? Can't one ask what someone does in order to know more about them and have something to talk about, or have some idea how much background info to give when you're explaining something?
Again, "Where do you live?" can be just a quest for information for some purpose.
How do you tell the difference? And why is it no longer politically correct to assume good intentions?

Our water communion has always had the full gamut from trips around the world to backyard hoses.

Maybe the solution is to not be embarrassed if you don't live in the best part of town....?

Our teen (who no longer lives with us) was what you would probably call "blue collar" -- she comes from that kind of background and she certainly sees no reason to go to college and thinks school is just stupid. She seems to have more travel money than we do though. She also spends what sounds to me like large amounts of her earnings on tatoos. Really-- she travels to Florida or Illinois three times a year from California. We couldn't afford that. We travel to places like Windsor. (Two and a half hours north of here by car.)

Donna said...

Robin, the solution to forgetting water is simple--get it out of the kitchen tap at the church. There should be a cup or two in the cupboard. Of course, I don't know how big your church is. Ours is a converted house, rather than a regular church building. Maybe that wasn't an option for you.

I can't afford to go out of town on vacations, so my water is purely local (in fact, from my house) and, really, no one at my church cares.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised-but-not-surprised by Dudley's comment about never having thought of water communion as relating to class. I've seen water communion ONCE, and the connection was obvious to me right away. Perhaps because I put in water from the hose I use to water my garden rather than from any travel. That may have given me an "advantage" in noticing. My UU church (being deeply personal and inclusive) introduced it with a clear invitation to use ANY water, including local water. I don't recall now what was said, but I know that my local water WAS invited. But the money-travel connection was still way-obvious to me. If I were to observe a WC in which ONLY "travel" water was invited, I think I would be very put off by it. From these comments it sounds like that is how WC is done (in many cases)???

Now, I'm glad Dudley can think about the money-connection, too -- but I'll add that there are about a zillion other similar money-relevant issues I notice at my UU church. And I am NOT saying I "object" to them or feel "marginalized" by (all of) them -- but I'm aware, and I also know that others will be affected DIFFERENTLY than I am.... that is, it is not my personal reaction that is the best gauge to whether an issue "might be problematic for someone".

And, indeed, being aware is entirely different from "knowing what to do differently". But it is a first step!

I imagine there are many CLASS issues that I'm unaware of -- but I'm pretty aware of the financial issues, so that's why I'm using $ words rather than class. Slice it elsewise if you want.

Oh, and I like the comment about few churches really having a span of incomes. My church is located in a downtown area, across from a park where homeless and poor people hang out (and/or live/sleep). I'm really glad we now have a tiny team discussing ways we might interact with these people. It's a real issue, and certainly very challenging for many or most people. I'm not expecting miracles but if we can even find ways to "do better" on it, I'll be glad for that.

Robin Edgar said...

Anonymous and Donna,

The emphasis was very much on water from summer "travels" at the Unitarian Church of Montreal and I expect many other U*U churches. It may have "evolved" a bit in other U*U churches and even the UCM which I have not attended for close to a decade now being an "excommunicated" Unitarian for daring to publicly expose the anti-religious intolerance and bigotry of the "fundamentalist atheist" faction of Humanists. The travel aspect is very clear in the Wikipedia entry about 'Water Communion.' It is for that reason that I chose to put a small amount of saliva in the communion bowel rather than substitute local water. I made a point of discussing the properties of water, including the fact that it was very likely that my body retained some of the molecules of water from my summer travels to the UUA GA in Rochester NY.

Most ironically what I did, with the associated talk about the properties of water, was very much in line with this official UUA suggestion for how children might participate in 'Water Communion.' I still am amazed that any reasonable adult could get upset about what I did. It was really quite discrete and I expect that the rumor mongering has more to do with those people who were already seeking to demonize me making an issue out of it after the fact, possibly years after the fact. . . Nobody expressed any discomfort at the time and it was only years later that I was informed by a member of the UCM that some people were spreading the rumor that I had spat in the 'Water Communion' bowl. Thankfully Juan Vera at least acknowledges the true facts, even though he pretends that simply putting my finger in my mouth, coating it with a thin film of saliva, and swishing my finger in the bowl of water, was "disruptive" behavior.

BTW Donna is that beautiful calico cat in your profile image yours? I used to have two beautiful calico cats myself but had to give them away when I had to move to a place where I cannot have pets.

Anonymous said...

(I'm the same anonymous)

I hope it didn't come across as my doubting that there's a travel emphasis. Reading about it made me appreciate my own congregation, where I do feel that there's a lot of (very intentional) balance and inclusion (on this, and in general). But, it does take intention, because otherwise the "travel" focus would take over (in this case). And it is always something, so it takes intention to look for the missing pieces. Often. Anyway, I do not mean to cast doubt on your experiences -- just offering some mild contrast and also my dismay at hearing how it is done elsewhere! (Also, I'll pay attention this year to see if it really does feel welcoming for local water.)

Re: your excommunication: is there info on that here if I go back a bit? It seems worth reading about.

Re: the saliva. I don't discount that there may be personal factors, but I am also here to tell you that (many or most) people are REALLY grossed out my other people's bodies. I'm not sure what to say about it, it seems both deeply odd and deeply normal to me, at the same time. Anyway, I think a lot of people are just plain repulsed by spit (as well as other body fluids and smells etc).