2016-04-23

Unitarian Universalism Has Class - Meaning Economic Privilege

Emily DeTar, Traces of Privilege, 2

We Unitarian Universalists are not unlike many denominations in the US, who came from more wealthy beginnings. We may be a small denomination, and we may at times be financially struggling, but Unitarians once owned all of Harvard University, and have churches that date back to 200 years in different affluent areas of the country. This is not true for all of our members, and this is not true for all of our churches, but I think it’s important to recognize that within our denomination's institutions, we have economic privileges that factor into who might feel welcome in our communities.

Let me take a step back and think about what economic privileges are.

What I used to think, is that economic class was really only reflected by the money you had saved if any, or what budget you spent per month. Believing that economic class has to do with money in the bank, is itself a notion guided by my own economic privilege. The stark reality is economic ability is about much more about having the ability to accrue wealth.

Take losing a paycheck: If a family, that has other family members of wealth, an IRA, an existing credit card, and home lost a paycheck, it would be very hard, but there are a number of existing systems and places they can pull finances from. If someone who has been denied the ability to apply for a mortgage, consistently defaulted on loans and credit cards, and has been raised with families without any foreseeable saved income, that lost paycheck does mean that they lose everything.

How did some acquire the ability to establish good credit, and open a saving account over others? For many this comes from the family systems of wealth they inherited. For others, class and wealth is influenced by race, gender, ability, and sexual orientation. For others, it is actually where you are born, if you are born in communities that are already struggling, or ones with good school systems. There are a huge number of factors that lead to economic privilege.

For myself, I was born in a small suburban town, with two parents who had paid off their mortgage when I was young. I am white, went to suburban schools that made it easier to get into colleges, was able to gain work that didn’t sacrifice my education, and had parents able to sustain our family. All of these factors gave me economic privileges, and make it so I have economic systems working for me in ways that don’t work for others.

So what about Unitarian Universalism? We have a denomination which while it’s combined presence is new, has institutions that date back 200 years in the US, with an affluent history. While our faith communities are feeling the economic ache in present times, we have buildings that have accrued wealth, have churches that have been living in places of wealth for years, and even a denomination headquarters who is still able to be housed right inside Boston. These are all small realities, but they point to institutional wealth and privilege I believe we as Unitarian Universalists should be aware of.

More than our institutions, no matter what church you may belong to, class takes part in every activity we do. Take something as common as coffee hour. We need people to volunteer to bring in food, and we might assume that everyone can, but the reality usually is some can afford to and others can’t. Or if you have a church that spends money on staff to do hospitality, that can communicate the amount of money the church has that it’s members or visitors might not have. For me, when people say we don’t need food after service, I often wonder who that week is going go without a meal on Sunday because we didn’t serve food. Feeding others on Sunday is an act of faithful and community service, but that doesn’t stop from economic realities affecting it. Class issues in church life are unavoidable, and need to be thought through.

If that was just serving food, think about stewardship. Communities of faith absolutely need money, more than ever, to survive. But I believe it is important to be honest about money, to even up front ask for number and figures, while being conscientious of the different abilities of the community. It has been in my very limited experience, that congregations who don’t talk about their financial realities and budgets, end up perpetuating systems of classist assumptions much more, than congregations who are honest about their own communities struggles and needs.

This is what I feel our faith calls us to do: to be comfortable getting uncomfortable about money. In order for any justice to be served, we have to talk about the injustice of systems of economic oppression. Yet, if we as a faith are going to make a difference to fight systems of oppression, we also must sustain ourselves. We need to be honest and talk to one another about the needs of our faith communities, because only when we are able to build resourceful, caring communities that can sustain themselves in financially honest ways, can we be more upfront about combating economic assumptions, recognizing privileges, and combating disparity.

* * *
This is part 2 of an ongoing series, "Traces of Privilege," which explores privileges I possess, and what my faith as a Unitarian Universalist calls me to do about them.
See also
Traces of Privilege, 1: The UU Privileges and Purposes
Traces of Privilege, 3: A Memory of Privilege and the Importance of Personhood
Traces of Privilege, 4: The Privilege of Working for Black Lives Matter

4 comments:

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