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Conversations on Race, Class and Theology Advance Congregational Dialogues on Urban Issues

The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, convener of the Third UU Urban Church conference of the UUA, encouraged conference participants to begin a conversation around issues of race, class and theology. The conversation was one which participants of the 1998 Baltimore Urban Ministries conference had indicated was a high priority for further attention. Robinson Harris was clear in saying that it was not the expectation of the planning committee that the conversation would be complete or result in strategies for action - only that this was a beginning dialogue which might inform further action.

In groups of eight to ten participants, people discussed questions following reflections from one of the dialogue facilitators. The Rev. Jose Ballester spoke on Friday to provide a context for the conference dialogue, and participants were asked to consider these questions, in two segments:

A.

  1. Starting with the particulars, how has your family and personal background affected how you understand class?
  2. What is the heart of your Unitarian Universalism?
  3. How does your class location affect your spiritual life within UUism?
  4. What is your conception of God (or whatever world you use for the Ultimate); where does that come from, and what does it have to do with class?

B.

  1. How does class operate in UUism?
  2. How does our worship style reflect class?
  3. How does our religious language reflect class?
  4. Is 'class passing' a factor in our life together?
  5. By what formal (bylaws, policies) and informal (norms) ways do we include low income people in UUism and how do we "manage" the mixture of classes pledging, fundraising, volunteer work, leadership, social events, etc?

Participants were invited to share the feedback of their discussions. These were some of their comments:

"I was … surprised that four or five of us came from working class backgrounds. We talked about that. About where our buildings are located physically as a statement of class…"

"We talked about how we look as a congregation, when you walk in [the door]…we look the same. We send out a great variety of messages that we are a homogeneous cluster of people. There is that assumption that everyone is like us … and we don't question the message we send to others.

"When we started speaking, most [of us] defined class as having to do with racism. You can not run away from yourself, no matter what assumptions you make. The dominant white culture can not make assumptions for the dominant male culture which we have no ownership of. We have to start living the talk, otherwise we die as a church and start living as a club. That white upper class must stop oppressing lower class cultures. We have to take a look inside, rather than looking outside..."

"We told our own stories…many talked about powerful and moving experiences that came from their own stories…this could be a good thing in our churches…the covenant group movement. We talked about how we often believe in our arrogance that it is wonderful to be an 'intelligentsia' denomination. But we may be impoverished, we have sacrificed some of the heart and soul, and we may be missing this in our experience..."

"Our group was caught in the whole discussion of money, and the need for our congregations to have more money. That got us into the discussion about generosity, and why aren't we more generous. People give exactly what the church is worth to them. In traditions and congregations where people are generous with their money, it is because they know their faith has changed their lives. What do we do to help ourselves and our people be conscious every minute and every day what difference their faith is making in their lives? To that extent, we can be clear what we have to offer to any people of any class, race, background, to get through the day with a generous heart that cares and that gives.

"We have a couple themes. Most [people at our discussion] rejected the teachings of the bible because of its rigidity…out of this rejection, we turned to a religion that more exemplified the spirit in our hearts… There was a consensus that spiritualism and social justice work go hand in hand…it is the goal of every church to combine the love of god with the push to get on the streets and get things done. And if we can effectively do that we will be the number one movement for social justice in the country."

On Saturday, following a context-setting talk by the Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, conference participants considered these 'assumptions' as points for focusing discussion:

  1. If our work with class and race is reasoned and researched well, the results we desire will follow
  2. we 'know' that ends we seek are 'right, good and honest'
  3. we are really concerned about people and not the abstract idea of equality
  4. when our theological understanding of race as related to class includes an understanding of our own ethnic history, we will 'see' our own racism.

Some of the comments from the groups discussing these assumptions were these:

"In my group we categorized the three questions…available resources, needed resources, theological assumptions. We need experience of people in classes, organizations existing in cities in churches, social action programs, materials prepared by other churches, district RE personnel. [regarding] theological assumptions: the tendency exists to link race and class … Issues of class and working on these should be considered religious work. How we deal with these things…is important. We need to utilize all resources."

"We want facilitated discussions, we want to remove the barriers to language, terminology… We talked about theology…At a congregational level, [there were] confessions [about those things] that congregations do, which perpetuate class distinctions… One example is the attitude of feeling, of being accepted into the community immediately…feelings that people are not dressed properly or from the same class…It is hard to sit down and feel comfortable immediately. [And there is the issue of sacrifice. UUs don't like to talk about it. We fear it…we feel we need to sacrifice our time and some of our privilege… how much is enough to feel that we have done enough?

"We have more theological resources than we may think…we need to tease them out and find out how they relate… Process theology is one avenue…we need to articulate that analysis. We have resources in our history, positive and negative…although our leaders have great things to say, their own class background and location influences that…and look at where these people were speaking from and their basic elitism…We also have tremendously rich resources in our Universalist heritage, they were the itinerant preachers who went and talked to everyone…in Chicago, there will be a Universalist convocation at the Church of the Open Door…"

"We were asked what theological substance holds us back. I said that freedom, reason and tolerance holds us back. We talk about an individual being free, but we should talk about all people. We talk about reason, and individual thoughts, but we should talk about wisdom. And do I have to say anything about tolerance? What happened to love, to caring, to joy? These things need to be in our theology and are not [now]."

After a song break, more comments were made:

"What does an antiracist UUA look like? Attendance at GA will be covered by some means other than people digging into their own pockets. Don't assume that everyone has email till they do, when they do, use it like crazy. The clergy/laity balance has to work better…the laity can't spread the word when they can't be there. We will decentralize… what is the time and money cost of reaching the UUA? We will have a positive focus… they will ask us what we think about things in the world."

We are going to develop leadership and thinking and resources to think about this. We are going to advertise in ventures in addition to NPR. We are going to wrestle with the education divide…we are going to spend effort on marketing, which is lots off hard work. There is a relationship to race and class…love is an important thing we have to bring to this topic. We recognize that this country is changing…we recognize that in a country transformed by immigration, culture could be our big next thing."

"We spent a lot of time talking about elevating interconnectedness…one of the questions we raised is, is there a way that existing congregations can support or start new congregations or strengthen existing congregations in working class areas? Are there ways we can strengthen the finances for meetings like this, that support the participation of more people?"

"We also talked about this question of how do we get together where it's not those of us who have enough money to afford to get there…is there a way for the national organization or district to support this … is there a way to have regional meetings? We talked about the Alban Institute data that says it's harder to change the culture of the existing church than to start new ones? Do we look intentionally for congregations that have a different culture? And if we do that, do we wind up with a congregation that is privileged, another that is labeled as Hispanic…do we try and overcome our comfort level? Maybe we say, OK, I'm going to go to a church where I don't feel comfortable in this church…we are all going to try and deal with some discomfort."

"We talked about the theological mandate to try and be comfortable with someone who is very different than we are. That may be our theological mandate…to be like someone who is able to overcome and connect with others."

"What does an anti-classist UUA look like? Someone said what we act like is more important than what we look like. The fear of the ruling class is eliminated. How do we get there? We need to accommodate existing differences. Emphasize what our church has accomplished, not what it needs. Establish trust within our church, diversify committees within our church. These characteristics are visible in most circumstances. If we do this, how will it impact our anti-racism work? It will make it very easy.

"We talk too much and do too little. We focus too much on the big picture, not on ourselves. If we can make communities that make change, we will make a difference. Be open with each other first, and then recruit. As young adults, we feel that we need to incorporate more of a young adult spirit in our congregations. Much of what happens at these cons is different than [at] a young adult con…we have more a of a sense of community, and much of our sense of worship and how it is inclusive for classes and races, and I think it could transform our movement. I think we need to have a combined con, sleep on the floors, have some pizza…create churches that have doors that are always open…we need to be open, honest, and proud of who we are."

Closing Saturday's reflection were comments from the conference convener, Tracey Robinson-Harris. She said, in part:

"My ancestors, Scots-Irish, settled in the Blue Hills. They came in hope of rebuilding their lives. My mother was born on a farm in Virginia, her family were sharecroppers. My mother left her farm and came to the city for a better life. This was my father's home town, Lynchburg, Va. My father's first job was at a horse rendering plant. My mother stayed home after I was born, and never went back to her work. By the time I was in the third grade, we had a home in the suburbs, and my very own bedroom, where I got to choose the paint for the walls. Poor to working class in just two generations, and I wonder how I got here. A woman, just one person, out of the tobacco fields in central Virginia.

"I still struggle with how I got here, and I struggle with feeling like a fraud, like I don't belong. I can with some skill engage in class passing. My parents have visited the churches where I have served…. they greet people with smiles, and with the language of 'ma'am' and 'sir.' Here I am, calling this place, which they will only ever visit, home. "My father's hard work to build a better life for his family has paid off. How many of us are like me? How much of our class identity as UUs is about who we are, and who we have become?

"I wonder how complicated our class identity really is. And I wonder how much race has to do with my being a UU. Over the course of my journey to this religious community, many doors have opened for me because I am white. I never thought of myself as privileged, because white was just normal. Until a decade or so. And as I thought back, it was hard to understand how privilege has made a difference. How much is due to hard work, and how much to the privilege of whiteness, and my access to that which is called racism… I wonder in what ways my journey within racism is about access to whiteness or more accurately, to more privileges of whiteness than I might have been able to know because of class or gender?

"I have only been a white woman for a decade or so. Before that, I was a woman, and that was the defining element of oppression. Then I tried to figure out what being a white woman was about; … at the intersection of gender and race, or race and class. What are we to do? I worry about the places in our religious community, where overcoming oppression is so connected…. that we can't move forward toward justice. I worry we will be stuck over what comes first…I worry we will sacrifice courage for fear of making mistakes. I worry that hierarchies and false choice will defeat us… as the interlocked oppressions…simply carry on while we disagree and deny and those of us who are white defend our precious privilege…

"We know how to separate oppressions, and we must separate them to know them well and engage them effectively. My own life viewed through an anti-sexist lens looks different from life viewed through anti-racist lens…my strength grows as I am able to bring my whole self to the struggle. So we must remember…that the work of justice is the work of the spirit, and does not require anything more or less than we already have. All of ourselves, race, class, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation…[we must] challenge [them] and move beyond them. As Audre Lord wrote…'it takes all of us…to effectively focus attention and action; every one of those battles generates usefulness of the others. Tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone, and who lend the best of us to this, and with joy.' So may it be with us."

On Sunday, following remarks by Robette Dias, conference participants wrapped up their discussion examining the following questions:

  1. What does an anti-classist UUA look like?
  2. How will we get there?
  3. What is the relationship of class, race, gender, and culture?
  4. How will this impact our anti-racism work?

In conclusion, Robinson-Harris said, "we need to remember that UU congregations will be nurturing children. If we want children to be anti-racist, anti-oppressive, what should our communities be? What should the collective act like? What should our collective commitment be to raise our children the way that they will live? I invite you to start the conversation for a collective religious community that can do that…."

For more information contact web@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, August 23, 2012.

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