Sunday, March 4, 2018: What’s Class Got To Do With It?

By: Anna


Across a Great Divide”

(Rev. Alicia Roxanne Forde)

it feels like We are eyeing one another across a great divide

a divide i sometimes call:

“class, race, ethnocentricity, theological perspective and its implications for how We practice,

how We live, how We be.”

if you be You and i be Me

if We speak truth in love – with love,

if We act, relate with integrity

if We unite our spirits…open, and aching, and whole, and wanting, and giving…

then the work We engage, the communities We create, the power of who We can be

holds a great promise

a great hope

for us and our wider communities…

and this…matters.


(by Rev. Dorothy Emerson)

We light this chalice for all the people

Who find their way to our church

May we welcome them for who they are

And celebrate whatever they bring

To our beloved community.


People tending toward democracy” (by Muriel Rukeyser, from “The Life of Poetry” (1949))

We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare … But around and under and above it is another reality; like desert-water kept from the surface and the seed, like the old desert-answer needing its channels, the blessing of much work it arrives to act and make flower. The history of possibility … All we can do is believe in the seed, living in that belief.

As we join together in shared silence, let us reflect on the seeds that are under the surface in our lives and our community. What do we need to do to help the seeds flower? Can we believe in possibility and live in that belief?

READING: from “Class Lives” (by Felice Yeskel)

Class is the last great taboo in the United States. … Even in this period of growing economic inequality, we hardly ever talk about class.

Sometimes I think of class as our collective, national family secret. And, as any therapist will tell you, family secrets are problematic. … Most of us believe that the United States is a classless society, one that is basically middle class (except for a few unfortunate poor people and some lucky rich ones). … We have been taught from childhood, myths and misconceptions around class mobility and the American dream.

Many of us are confused about class and don’t tend to think about it as consciously as we might our race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age or sexual orientation. Nonetheless, our class identity has a huge impact on every aspect of our lives from parenting style to how we speak, from what we dare to dream to the likelihood we will spend time in prison, from how we spend our days to how many days we have.


“What’s Class Got To Do With It?”

Rev. Dorothy Emerson (c) copyright

What’s class got to do with our lives here in the United States? What’s class got to do with being a Unitarian Universalist congregation? What’s class got to do with escalating economic inequality in our world today? How is class related to the other diversities we are reflecting on this year?

Class certainly is one of the last great taboo subjects. When I was growing up and being trained to be middle class, we were told not to talk about politics or religion in polite company. Sex and cancer were also rarely discussed. We’re way past that today. So why has class remained off limits? I think it’s because class is related to money, and although we talk about money, we rarely talk about our personal financial circumstances.

Plus, class is often used as a judgment. We call people low-class or say they have no class. Although there are lots of names we no longer call people, white trash, redneck, and hillbilly are still in common use. And,

it’s not just folks at the low end of the scale that are vilified. A few years ago, those in the top 1% were accused of being complicit in the growing inequality that strangles the other 99%. In addition, people are criticized when they don’t act according to expectations. The former President’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, were accused of not dressing properly because, the critics said, they were not dressing according to their class.

Given this context, it’s no wonder that talking about class seems risky. But not talking about class doesn’t keep it from affecting our lives. In fact, once most people’s eyes and hearts are open to class differences, they begin to see the dynamics of class in virtually every aspect of life. They realize that they have been aware of class all along but they didn’t have a framework for thinking about it and sharing their experiences.

A few years ago a group of us created UU Class Conversations – to encourage our faith community to talk about class and to provide a safe context within which to begin this important conversation. To make it safe to talk about class, it is helpful to keep in mind that the purpose of doing this here is to strengthen our beloved community.

We begin by asking people to be in covenant with each other, to agree to listen to each other without judgment, to realize that our experiences will be different, even though there may be common themes, and not to share each other’s stories without permission. In a moment I’m going to invite you to talk about class with each other, so I ask you to agree to this covenant. Do you agree?

Like the fish that doesn’t realize it’s swimming in water, we are so embedded in class that most people can’t see it. At least we don’t think we do. I contend we all know about more about class than we realize.

First memories of class. You probably didn’t call it class. Instead you noticed that someone else had more or less than you. (congregants share among themselves 2 minutes)

What sorts of things did you notice that made you aware of class differences? (congregation shares responses)

These are all indicators of class. In the workshop we do with UU congregations and organizations around the country, we use the following definition of class: “relative social rank in terms of education, income, wealth (assets), societal status/position, power, and aspirations/expectations.” Class is not just how much money you make or how much wealth you have accumulated, although these are important elements. But as you noticed, there are many other ways we see class.

Some people begin life in one class and experience others as their lives unfold. However, even if we change class later on, our class backgrounds influence who we are now. Whatever your class situation was around ages 10 to 12 is likely to have shaped your self-understanding and worldview, as well as your attitudes about class – your own and others. Sharing our class stories connects us in new ways and can lead to more deeply understanding ourselves and others. This is why class is an important aspect of our personal spiritual journeys and our shared work towards building beloved community. But, that’s not all.

One of the creators of Class Conversations, Betsy Leondar-Wright, wrote a book with an intriguing title: Missing Class. The sub-title explains what she means: Strengthening Social Movements by Seeing Class Cultures. She demonstrates that failing to see class keeps social justice groups from being as effective as they might be. I’m doing this work on class because I believe that as a faith community we can live our UU principles more fully if we are aware of class cultures and make sure our congregations and programs are class inclusive.

Some of us learned to see class at an early age. In my case I began to be aware of class differences at age 7 when our family moved from an urban neighborhood in Southern California to the suburbs. Because it was the middle of the year, I had to complete two readers and two workbooks on my own to catch up with my new second grade class. My parents explained that my new school was much better than my old school and that’s why they were further ahead. Fortunately I liked to read so I enjoyed the transition.

Before long I became aware of other differences. We lived across the street from my school on the edge of an upwardly-mobile suburban community with large houses and yards. Our street was the only one in the area with multiple-family housing. My parents built a rental unit on the front of our place so we could afford to live in that part of town and go to good schools. My mother had a full-time job, unlike the mothers of my friends who were homemakers. Most of my friends had their own rooms while I had to share with my younger sister. Some friends even had swimming pools. I didn’t always feel like I fit in.

When my 6th grade teacher talked about the Russian Revolution, I learned about “class,” and asked my parents, “What class are we?” I don’t remember getting an answer. Later I came to identify my class background as lower-middle class. My father’s family was solidly working class, whereas my mother’s was trying hard to be middle class, but our family was never able to “move up” to a better house, as many middle-class families did.

My ticket to the middle class was education. My mother expected us to go to college, probably a state school which cost very little in those days. But my high school counselor encouraged me to consider private colleges and I fell in love with Pomona College. At the very last minute I won a scholarship to go to my dream school.

Once there, however, I experienced even more pronounced class differences. Only 10% of the students at the time were on scholarship, while others were wealthy. Some had gone to private schools all their lives and were as far ahead of me academically as my second grade class had been, but there was no way for me to catch up. I realized I would not be the nearly straight A student I had been in high school.

Knowing I didn’t have access to advantages and material things most other students had made me feel inferior. I wondered if I belonged there, but I knew I had been given a real opportunity, so I stayed and ended up with an excellent education. Years later, that diploma from Pomona, even with barely a B average, enabled me to get into Harvard Divinity School.

One of our core understandings at Class Conversations is that all classes have strengths and limitations. Despite what I experienced at the time as deprivation, I now realize how I benefited from my particular class situation. First of all, because we were in between classes, I learned to see class and to adapt to different class environments. From my working class father, I learned to keep track of money, be thrifty, and save. From my middle class mother, I learned to dream and figure out how to fund my dreams. Doing this work on class has enabled me to see my past experiences in a new way and to better understand both my successes and my failures. It has also given me a new sense of vision about what Unitarian Universalism could become.

A class-inclusive and class-diverse social movement or faith community is stronger than one with only a narrow range of classes. Combining the strengths of different classes, as well as diversity of race and ethnicity, means that together we have access to a large pool of knowledge, interests, and skills. But, for this to work, everyone’s skills and abilities need to be fully accepted, recognized, and honored – and everyone’s needs taken into account.

Plus, becoming aware of the dynamics of class and classism enables us to engage more effectively in cross-class coalitions with leaders and groups in the larger community so that together we might address the very serious issues of injustice in our world. You see, as with race, gender, and other systemic oppressions, understanding and addressing class and classism is far more than a personal or spiritual concern. It’s a life and death matter for growing numbers of people.

In order to effectively address the rapidly increasing divide between rich and poor in this country, we need to identify and debunk stereotypes and attitudes about different classes that undergird the public policies that have led to escalating inequality. We need to understand how racism and classism work together to destroy the lives of way too many people. Black Lives Matter is helping us come to grips with the dynamics of race, but in addition we need to understand how classism contributes to the problem. To create a more just economy for everyone, we must change our own attitudes and then work on changing public perceptions about how it is that some people are trapped in chronic poverty while others amass incredible wealth.

One of the beliefs we need to address is the idea that we live in a class-less society and that anyone who works hard can succeed. We must come to terms with the reality of class divisions and understand the resulting impact on children who grow up in chronic poverty. Current research indicates that the majority of these children will be unable to change their economic circumstances, no matter how hard they work. We are no longer the land of opportunity, and that needs to change.

There is hope. In a recent study by a Harvard business professor and a behavioral economist from Duke, 5,000 Americans were asked what they think the distribution of wealth is in this country. Most believe wealth is more evenly shared than it actually is, so they are shocked when they see that the actual situation is far more skewed than they imagined. When asked to choose how wealth should be distributed, 92% want to see a more equitable distribution of wealth. How do we make this happen?

This is where our work as a faith community needs to begin. Advocating for more just economic policies is important, but so is looking at our own attitudes and responses to people we perceive as from a different class. We also need to examine the policies and practices of the congregation and consider changing things that might keep some people from full participation. In so doing I believe we may find ourselves imagining new ways to activate our mission “to create an open faith community.”

As Class Conversations began its work, the UUA’s independent Commission on Appraisal took up the study of class in Unitarian Universalism. The report of their multi-year study is now available in this new publication, Class Action. The Commission hopes that this report will “inspire all UUs into action, [so that] our ministry [will] usher in transformative change in the world.”

I hope this congregation will join the growing numbers of UUs across the country who are envisioning and working towards a more class-inclusive and class-diverse Unitarian Universalism. Only in this way, I believe, can we more fully live our UU principles in the world. I invite you to join this movement.

Here in this congregation, we have begun important work toward ending white supremacy and understanding diversities of race and ability. Becoming more aware of class and opening up to others with different backgrounds and current realities can also help us welcome and include everyone who finds their way to this sacred place, as well as deepening relationships within the congregation. Addressing all these forms of diversity will help us fulfill our mission “to celebrate religious and cultural diversity, encourage spiritual growth, and promote a world of peace and social justice.”

When people tell me they think this movement toward class awareness and action is unrealistic because UU congregations will never change, I like to remind them of the time when lesbian and gay people were closeted and considered by almost everyone as unacceptable. The idea of openly LGBTQ ministers wasn’t even a concept in people’s minds. Over the past 25 years UU congregations have become so welcoming that we now take it for granted as an essential aspect of our faith.

To close this service, we’re going to sing a song that has recently undergone a significant change. This change represents a willingness on the part of the composer and many UUs to respond to the pain that is caused when people do not feel included, by words, attitudes, and practices that create barriers for them. The song, originally titled “Standing on the Side of Love,” has now become “Answering the Call of Love,” affirming that all are part of this movement, including those who do not stand. May we learn from this change how we can participate in making this congregation more inclusive and accepting of the class diversity that is already here and more welcoming to those who might seek to join us. May we answer the call of love with hands joined together and hearts beating as one.

CLOSING WORDS: (by Rev. Dorothy Emerson)

Mindful of our highest aspirations,

Bound by common faith and purpose,

And, yet, beginning with ourselves as we are,

Let us take one more step, together,

in our unending quest for dignity, justice and love.

Blessed Be, Amen, Peace, Salaam, Shalom.