Where Race and Class Unite? Part Two

The first Unitarian Universalist congregation I served, once I’d moved over from the American Baptists, was The First Universalist Church of Rockland, Maine. I know I’ve made reference to it in other sermons. They were a delightful congregation and provided me with a fine setting from which I could launch myself into the UU ministry. I began there in the fall of 1979.

While the church was fully identified as a UU congregation, they retained the name “First Universalist”; as they do to this day. I was the first minister they called since the two denominations—the Unitarians and the Universalists—merged in 1961. Their previous minister, whose retirement led to my coming there, had been ordained in the Universalist tradition and had served the congregation for over 20 years. And they still retained a fair amount of their Universalist identity and culture.

Demographically, at the time of my arrival, (and I’m coining a term here as I’ve never found it in any kind of sociological language) they were “upper working class.” By that I mean they were, by and large, people who had—or had retired from—hands on jobs: Nine-to-five in stores or banks, maybe a few small business people, some who farmed, some who worked in a local fish processing plant, and the like. They made good livings but lived modestly; reasonably comfortable, but not particularly affluent. Some had been to college—some not. Some of the younger members, a number of whom joined during my ministry, came from the professional class—teachers, human service workers, researchers at a local marine biology establishment, a couple of doctors; but they were not the predominant population in that congregation; at least not during my time there.

The pillar of the church, and the person who chaired the search committee that brought me there, was a locally prominent lawyer. He was also a member of the Maine State Senate. He was, in fact, the State Senate Majority Leader, with the “Majority” in the case being Republican. He had one of the highest levels of personal integrity of any person I’ve ever known; and while we did not see eye to eye on every political issue that came down the pike, he got my vote for State Senator when he came up for re-election during the course of my Rockland ministry. (So let the record show that I have been known on occasion to vote Republican.) His name was Sam Collins. He passed away several years ago. He was the Uncle of Maine’s current Senior United States Senator, Senator Susan Collins. Her political career was still a few years away from the time when I was in Rockland.

These recollections may sound like a rather unlikely way to introduce a sermon on the topic of class matters in our UU congregations, but I have my reasons. As you can probably tell, I’ve retained a lot of fondness for that church over my near 40 years in the UU ministry. Part of that is because they were a very forgiving congregation who allowed me my rookie mistakes; and “Senator Sam” ran some interference for me along that line at times. But my larger piece of gratitude is that they provided me an opportunity to be in ministry with what remains to this day, the most diverse congregation I’ve ever served when it comes to its socio-economic, educational, political, as well as its religious and theological, make-up.

This sermon picks up on two threads from ones I’ve already offered this fall. Back on September 17, in speaking about the various threads or ties that bind us as a congregation, one I cited was the tie of a shared identity. In order for any religious community, wherever it may be on the religious or theological landscape, to be viable and have the necessary sense of cohesion to operate, it has to have some shared sense of who it is, what it stands for, how it’s members be with one another, how they interact with one another, and where it wants to go in fulfilling its mission. Complete unanimity of opinion on the part of all its members is not necessarily required on all those things, but there has to be enough give-and-take around them so that some sense of a shared identity and purpose comes forth.

The other thread, which we looked at and spent some time with each other exploring two Sundays ago, has to do with class, and the intersection of race and class. We looked at this primarily from the larger societal and historical angle: How have matters of class and race played out over the course of our nation’s history, and in what ways do they affect our societal, cultural, and political life as a nation today. The follow-up workshop our Multi-Cultural Ministries Committee members Araya and Caroline led, helped us to focus on those larger issues in a more personal way—and I appreciate their leadership on that score.

Today I want to bring this matter of class closer to home. Home in this case being our Unitarian Universalist movement, and this congregation as a part of that movement—our UU Association. I’ll be drawing in part on a report that came out last summer, just prior to our UU General Assembly, by our Association’s Commission of Appraisal titled Class Action: The Struggle with Class in Unitarian Universalism. And I’ll be throwing in some of my own stuff as well.

To give us a bit of historical perspective: When our two parent bodies—the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America–merged back in 1961 to form our current Unitarian Universalist Association, it was much more than simply an organizational maneuver to create one denominational body out of two, complicated as that got. It was also a combining, a coming together, of two histories, two stories, and two cultures. While those stories, histories, and cultures had their similarities—enough similarities, in fact, to make a merger possible—they had some clear distinctions as well. And many of those distinctions were along the lines of class and culture.

A caveat: I am about to over-generalize. The reason, however, that generalities become generalities is because they contain enough truth to be reliably informative, even with all the exceptions that can be found to them. Such is the case, then, when one speaks of the historical and cultural differences between the Unitarians and the Universalists as they came together.

The Unitarian story that fed into our denominational merger was one of what we today would call the professional class: Well educated, holding positions of authority in various organizations or in academia, reasonably affluent, and the like. It was the story of Emerson and Thoreau, the Alcotts, Julia Ward Howe—the pantheon, that is to say, of the “flowering of New England.” Every person—I believe I have this right—who had served as President of the American Unitarian Association up to the time of merger was, as the term had it, “A Harvard Man.” I’m sure that the people who made up the Unitarian congregations over all that time had their personal pains and struggles, had their own personal and familial trials to deal with, had their many life challenges—as we all do—even as they faced those challenges from relative positions of social and cultural privilege. With some exceptions, of course, they were, by and large, a privileged class.

Then there were the Universalists; they were largely what we would term today as “blue collar” people, or working class. They were smart folks—even without higher academic credentials. They were more rural based than the more generally urbanized Unitarians: Farmers, small town merchants, fishermen if they lived in coastal towns. They were, by and large, people who made their living by their hands; laborers who usually did well enough for themselves to earn a living, but with few of them being in what I just referred to as the professional class.

Theologically the two were of one mind in their rejection of Calvinism with its emphasis on original sin and the fallen nature of humanity from which only an arbitrary God could deliver them. Instead both the Unitarians and the Universalists held to the idea of a loving God, who had demonstrated his love of humanity in the person of Jesus—whose example we should follow and be loving, caring, and justice seeking persons ourselves. It was from this stance that both the Unitarians and the Universalists—each in their own way—engaged in many of the social reform and social justice movements of their day. United as they were in certain respects, then, they just didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with each other at the ground level since they moved in different social, economic, and educational circles.

So, these were the two stories, and the two cultures, that met back in 1961 when our Unitarian Universalist Association was created. What happened in the ensuing decades—painting with an admittedly broad brush here—is that the Unitarian culture became the predominant one throughout our UU movement and in our UU congregations. The Universalist story/culture was not, and has not, been obliterated, but it certainly came to be diminished.

To add one more historical piece, by the late 19th century the Universalist Church in America—by some counts—was the sixth largest Protestant denomination in America. The reasons for their subsequent decline is beyond the scope of this sermon, but they did demonstrate that liberal religion can attract a largely working class constituency. I happen to believe that is still possible.

So where does all this leave us when it comes to what this 2017 Commission on Appraisal report calls “The struggle with class in Unitarian Universalism”? All I can and want to do for the remainder of this sermon is to offer some talking points along this line that I’m hoping can lead to some broader conversations amongst us between now and the close of this interim ministry period we are in. The extension of our interim time gives us an opportunity for this.

To help frame up the kind of conversations I have in mind, I go to the congregational survey your fine Search Team put together last winter, and that I assume they will be using this year in their search for a settled minister. [And this would be a good place for me to commend them for what I understand was a wonderful service last Sunday. I thank the Search Team for offering it, and I thank Cindy Malley for her leadership of the service.]

Without glazing your eyes over with too much data, I hope, I’ll lift up just the following:

When it comes to your levels of education, for just a little over 1% of you it stops at the high school level. 88% of you have either a college degree or a post-graduate degree, with 55% being post-graduate.

When it comes to careers, 53% of you have careers in what this UUA Report called the “Professional Class.” [Oh, and 25% of you are retired.] So, most of you have jobs in which you “run things.” You’re in charge of stuff. You may not be the top dog, but you exercise certain degrees of authority; and, presumably, you’re used to that.

As far as income goes, over half of you have annual incomes in excess of $100,000, with some considerably higher than that base-line figure. I realize that this is a tricky statistic in that a given family income figure can mean widely different things in different families, given the needs and challenges of any one particular family. Still and all, it’s a significant figure.

A couple of things to note at this point. No one certainly needs to justify or feel apologetic, about wherever they happen to land on the socio-economic-educational spectrum or landscape. Had I taken this survey I would have been right there in your mainstream with most of you. And like most, if not all of you I’m sure, I expended a fair amount of effort and sacrifice to get to where I happen to be. You did too. All well and good. The other thing I’ll add is that I feel safe in saying you could have offered this same survey in at least 75-80% of our UU congregations and you would have come up with pretty much the same numbers. That’s what this UUA report indicates as well; and it bears out my earlier point that it was the Unitarian culture that has become the predominant one since merger.

Okay, so what. We are who we are. Do we collectively make like Popeye and say, “I yam what I yam” and that’s that? Well, here’s the talking point I’m aiming for with all this: If we treat the data I just cited as a mirror, what are your reactions, what are your feelings, when you look in that mirror? What do you see that you like, that you feel good about—and what in that mirror might be making you uncomfortable or disturbed? How to you affirm what you feel good about; and how to you attend to whatever may be giving you discomfort? As you go forward in your search for a settled minister, do you want someone who will help you maintain where you are demographically, or would you like to move in some other directions?

You cannot change the culture of a congregation—or most any organization for that matter—overnight. But a beginning point is to examine your present culture and then decide where you may wish to go with it as the story of your church continues to unfold. I’ll be looking for ways to facilitate these kinds of conversations before our interim time together comes to a close.

To tack on another angle here, I was very taken with what was shared in the follow-up gathering we had two weeks ago after the first “Class Sermon” I offered. And I thank Araya Fast and Caroline Marvin for setting that up. What came through most strongly was the sharing of the various socio-economic and cultural journeys many of us have had to arrive at this place together; the variety of class experiences that have brought us here. That’s what those numbers I cited—valuable and informative as they are—do not show. They show, demographically, where we are; what they don’t show is how we got here, and how the stories we bring affect the ways in which we be with one another here and now. These kinds of sharings also need to be a part of a conversation about class.

The reason our denomination’s Commission on Appraisal devoted the time and resources they did into producing this work, was—I dearly hope—not to produce a document that will gather dust, but to prod us into the kinds of interactions within our congregations along the lines that I’ve been suggesting. How much of it I’ll see myself is to be determined—by the forces of human mortality that are beyond my control—but I hope for the sake of the future viability and significance of our movement we can recapture some of that Universalist culture we’ve lost along the way. And, as I say, not just for the sake of the health and well-being of our own liberal religious movement—important as that is—but for how it might better strengthen us for the challenges—the precarious challenges—of the age in which we live.

On that note, as I begin to wind this down, I want to lift up just a single paragraph from the report to which I’ve been referring. The words are hard-hitting, but pay them heed: “The failure to adequately address the deepening class inequality is the leading cause of the 2016 ‘Brexit’ vote, the rise of neo-fascism in Europe and the United States, and Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States in 2016. Neo-fascism has played into the racism that inheres in the very bones of sour society. Our challenge as Unitarian Universalists is to raise our understanding of our global context and forge ways forward, both within our walls, and in the world around us. As terrifying as the situation in which we find ourselves is, it is the ideal environment for a countervailing power to emerge.”

Focus on that last line: “As terrifying as the situation in which we find ourselves is, it is the ideal environment for a countervailing power to emerge.” If we are to be a part of that countervailing power to what I believe is being aptly labeled here as neo-fascism, we need to look both within and without. To pick up another line from the quote just cited: “Our challenge as Unitarian Universalists is to raise our understanding of our global context and forge ways forward—both within our walls, and in the world around us.”

When I began the two-part series two weeks ago, I made reference to the song in our hymnal by Edwin Wilson. Its opening lines are something of a call and response. The Call: “Where is our holy church?” The Response: “Where race and class unite.” You may recall I said I felt the question mark should be after the words “Where race and class unite” as well as after “Where is our holy church?” I still feel that way, but I’m going to ask that we sing it now as an expression of hope, of a vision, which we’ve not yet achieved, but towards which we continue to aspire. May we sing together.

Stephen Edington
October 15, 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *