Is there a place for poor Unitarian Universalists?

And when I ask “Is there a place for poor Unitarian Universalists?” I don’t mean one, or two, or a small handful of poor people within a congregation of prosperous people, but a vital presence of Unitarian Universalists in a particularly poor community, or coming out of the experience and responding to the poor people in a mixed community.

I’m not too hopeful; we’re pretty homogeneous. It’s hard to find a Unitarian Universalists congregation that’s not high-majority white, though I can think of a couple that may count or at least come close. And I remember my experience as a native Southerner in Unitarian Universalist: far from affirming, and tinged with the feeling that Southern Unitarian Universalists, save those who grew up in the old Universalist churches, were transplants and that the congregations served a kind of outpost. Economic poverty seems like another excluding category.

And its solution is more remote, too. Without new models of ministry. How would such a church be organized? How could it be supported? How would it be accepted, without pity or distancing? It’s hard to be different, either as a person or congregation.

And harder to expose how much poverty — or near-poverty — is likely unrecognised.

Get cozy at Providence GA

The General Assembly housing site opened today I was curious to see how much rooms would cost in Providence for General Assembly. (Not for myself: I’m staying with friends.) The city is rather thin for hotels, and when (in my day job) I sent people there, I thought the price was high.

But every room for the days of General Assembly (GA) proper were full. How? Ah.

Hotel rooms for General Assembly are currently sold out. Due to unforeseen circumstances, two hotels originally contracted (Renaissance and Hilton) are now involved in labor disputes. We terminated our contracts with these properties as the UUA supports fair labor practices. Dormitory style housing is still available at Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University click here. We are working to secure additional hotels in surrounding communities and will post as they become available. Be advised that housing is fluid, so please check back on a regular basis to see if rooms have become available.

As if the trouble with Phoenix GA hotels wasn’t heartburn inducing enough.

I feel bad for the GA office, but the policy is correct. If you had to make a short list of people whose well-being could be improved by ethical spending, hotel workers would be high on the list and they deserve our support.

This puts financially strapped attendees in a bind: do you go to the rejected hotels and side with management? I hope the core labor isseo can be resolved, but the least one can do is not cross the picket line early.

Also, take the dorm room option seriouly, if you hadn’t before. Oh, and if you got a room today, double up.

UUs and class: thought 2

I was getting excited about talking about ministry with poor and working-class people that I worked on this and another thought.

But I won’t. The discussion has become too theoretical. The same poor and working-class people seem more like a object of discussion, and the real, perennial subject — richer-people’s anxiety — is percolating.

It’s not a discussion I want to foster.

UUs and class: thought 1

Better to make this short and get it out and write again if need be. The issue of class and Unitarian Universalism is one that won’t be solved by this or any thread on blogs, but I am responding to some of the blog posts written by Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Tom Schade.

In the South, there’s a joke that an Episcopalian is a Methodist with an education, and variations on the joke “descend” from there to the Baptists and Pentecostals. In other words, it’s all together possible to “trade up” when choosing one’s church. And, of course, part of the fantasy is that you belong there, that you have always belonged there and there was never a time when you and your family wasn’t so status-full. Which is to say it’s a lie.

The Unitarians, surely, and Universalists, to a more Presbyterian level, had status churches, but today the conventional status is more remembered than actual. The number of bona fide WASPs in our congregations, particularly outside New England, seems vanishingly small but as others have observed, there’s little cachet in the WASP brand anymore.

Instead, the status value Unitarian Universalist congregations have comes their contrarian role in conservative areas, and as a venue of self-reinvention everywhere.

Figuring on unpaid ministers

I was drawn to the online Economist article about the admission of women to the episcopate in the Church of England by a tweet by British Unitarian and Free Christian Chief Officer Derek McAuley. It had a wry caption about Unitarian (do see) but I don’t care much about that, or an established church or the episcopal form of church government.

I do care about ministers being able to live with the necessities of life, and in not creating systems that keep poor people from exercising a ministry.

See the chart that shows the growing bulk of Church of England clergy working in unpaid settings. Which means those ministers are scraping by; have independent wealth, family support or a pension (a class issue, surely); or work part-time in another job. At which point I leave the Anglicans, lest I get too wrapped up in their ways. Indeed, Universalists were all but planted in this country by a purse-poor evangelist and a wealthy spouse (who later suffered deep poverty) … and many a cash-strapped minister who gave up so much for the spiritual welfare of others.

But when the costs are too high for too long and the burdens go unshared, eventually the system shrinks and collapses. Let that be a warning.

Free your mind from commercial occupation

My “Occupy mind” is moving from plowing (attracting attention through encampment) to planting, even if the seasons belie the metaphor. It’s time to develop concrete actions to match the feelings stirred up in the last two months. A political response is natural, and I expect you to keep pressure on your congregational delegations with respect to the banks, money in elections, student indebtedness and mortgages, among other issues.

But another, more basic issue, is changing our minds about what we really need as opposed to what we think we need. Confusing the famous with the important. Believing the promises made to you by people who have no interest in your well-being. (That thought started as a rejection of advertising, but really it goes much farther.) Thinking that your opinion is false because it is not well-spoken. (You can work on being convincing later.)

Of course, it’s easier to do this when there are concrete examples, and I’ll post good models as I find them.

John and Eliza Murray were one serious illness from bankruptcy

It’s well known now that a medical crisis is more likely to push you — let’s limit this to the United States — into bankruptcy than any other single cause. This was true, too, for Universalist church founder and inspirer John Murray and his first wife, Eliza around 1768.

The text follows, but first to set the scene.  Our brother and our grandfather are literally Eliza’s. She was raised by her grandfather, but had been disinherited — at one brother’s scheming; he got her inheritance as a wedding gift — for marrying Murray (for being a follower of George Whitfield, rather than being a Universalist.) Though reconciled, the grandfather’s new wife — who had been the older man’s servant; John had found her — cut off the family. On top of this, both Murrays had recently become attendees of the notorious (Universalist) James Relly’s worship, and so were cut off from the main of London evangelical fellowships. Their avenues for relief few, and thus their risks high . . .

We had a sweet little retirement in a rural part of the city. We wanted but little, and our wants were all supplied; and perhaps we enjoyed as much as human nature can enjoy. One dear pledge of love, a son, whom my wife regarded as the image of his father, completed our felicity. But, alas! this boy was lent us no more than one short year! He expired in the arms of his agonized mother, whose health, from that fatal moment, began to decline. I was beyond expression terrified. Physicians recommended the country; but my business confined me in London, and my circumstances would not admit of my renting two houses. I took lodgings at a small distance from town, returning myself every day to London. The disorder advanced with terrific strides. My soul was tortured. Every time I approached her chamber, even the sigh which proclaimed she still lived administered a melancholy relief. This was indeed a time of sorrow and distress beyond what I had ever before known. I have been astonished how I existed through such scenes. Surely, in every time of trouble, God is a very present help. I was obliged to remove the dear creature, during her reduced situation, the house in which I had taken lodgings being sold; but I obtained for her a situation about four miles from town. The scenes around her new lodgings were charming. She seemed pleased, and I was delighted. For a few days we believed her better, and again I experienced all the rapture of hope. My difficulties, however, were many. I was necessitated to pass my days in London. Could I have continued with her, it would have been some relief. But as my physician gave me no hope, when I parted from her in the morning, I was frequently terrified in the dread of meeting death on my return. Often, for my sake, did this sweet angel struggle to appear relieved; but, alas! I could discern it was a struggle, and my anguish became still more poignant. To add to my distress, poverty came in like a flood. I had my house in town, a servant there; the doctor, the apothecary, the nurse, the lodgings in the country, — everything to provide; daily passing and repassing. Truly my heart was very sore. I was friendless. My religious friends had, on my hearing and advocating the doctrines preached by all God’s holy prophets ever since the world began, become my most inveterate foes. Our grandfather was under the dominion of the woman I introduced to him, who had barred his doors against us. The heart of our younger brother was again closed, and, as if angry with himself for the concessions he had made, was more than ever estranged; and even our elder brother, who, in every situation, had for a long season evinced himself my faithful friend, had forsaken us! I had, most indiscreetly, ventured to point out some errors in the domestic arrangements of his wife, which I believed would eventuate in his ruin, and he so far resented this freedom as to abandon all intercourse with me. Among Mr. Relly’s acquaintance I had no intimates, indeed, hardly an acquaintance. I had suffered so much from religious connections, that I had determined as much as possible to stand aloof during the residue of my journey through life. Thus was I circumstanced, when the fell destroyer of my peace aimed his most deadly shafts at the bosom of a being far dearer to me than my existence. My credit failing, my wants multiplying, blessed be God, my Eliza was ignorant of the extent of my sufferings! She would have surrendered up her life, even if she had feared death, rather than have permitted an application to either of her brothers; yet was I by the extremity of my distress precipitated upon a step so humiliating.

But she did die, and in time Murray was locked up in a sponging house, a prelude to prison proper, where the inmates, locked up in a bailiff’s house were squeezed (hence the sponge reference) by having to pay their own bed and keep, at inflated prices. His brother-in-law William paid his debt and set him up in a business. Within two years, he had left “to retire in” the wilderness of America, a kind of living suicide and the rest — they say — is history. And providence.

Plain thoughts about alternatives to college

Minister and blogger (and friend) Adam Tierney-Eliot looked at his family’s finances and so addressed one of the great taboos of the educated middle class: that there may be an alternative to college for his children, that blithely opting into college surely come with a mountain of debt, and that the alternatives might be demonstrably better. The influence of homeschooling and related questions about the cost of ministerial education surely play into a larger discussion.

I’m glad that Team Eliot has some time to make plans.

A college education, to my mind, provides at least the following five benefits, which need to be addressed in a plan to “un-college” a youth.

  1. Content information in a field of study
  2. Character development, including manners and professional or academic habits
  3. Habits for further learning, including disciplined curiosity
  4. A social network
  5. Identifiable credentials

Of course, other experiences provide these; military service is an obvious alternative. Also, not all college student acquire these five, or do it well. But so long as there’s a presumption that one’s middle-class standing is tied to a post-high-school college education, then it makes sense to address all of these intentionally — at least to relieve the anxiety that the experiment is foolhardy and detrimental. The goal, I think, is not to ape class prescriptions, but to guide a young person into a confident and competent adulthood without hobbling him (I’m still speaking here of the Eliot boys) though decades of student debt.

I work in the HR and financial end of a savvy nonprofit organization, and I see the effects of high student debt every day. Avoid it if you can. And now the question of how. (I hope to return to this subject, but I would like readers to comment at length, too.) But I’ll start here:

  • There needs to be a plan, with measurable goals. Making plans and meeting goals, and the peril in failing to do so, is itself a basic life lesson.
  • The plan should include independent study and networking and compensated work and travel and public service.
  • An internship, including one or more of the above, should be a part of the plan. It — or they; multiple internships are not uncommon — has, since my own college days, become essential, and may matter as much or more than the degree to some employers.
  • The most valuable skill is the ability to write and speak in clear, convincing and jargon-free English.
  • The second most valuable skill, I suspect, is the ability to manage money, including the ability to read (and perhaps draft) budgets. Personal ones, at the very least: it’ll also make the prospect of self-education seem wiser.
  • If a degree turns out to be essential to follow a career path, then distance learning, based on credit by examination might be an option. I tested out of about two quarters of classes that would have otherwise bored me, and let me graduate with two majors in four years.


The non-sense of austerity policy

Andrew Brown, Unitarian minister and blogger (Caute) wrote:

Readers of this blog may be interested this short video presentation which is, I think, worth five minutes of anyone’s time.

I agree, for several reasons, not the least of which is warning about misleading civil preachments of virtue.

Do watch this.

Open for comment: is there a place for racism-theory dissent in the UUA?

The more I follow stories about race in the Unitarian Universalist Association — and particularly the alphabet soup of policy-making at the highest elected levels — the more I (1) wonder what the real, heart-felt motive is and (2) fear that the UUA is locked into a uniform Boomer-driven worldview — not only about race, but wealth, institutions and status — that I certainly do not share.

I’m 40, with gray hair and bad knees, and have been a Unitarian Universalist for a quarter-century, so it’s not I’m new to his, or young. Yet I wonder if the last Unitarian Universalist generation is the one before me. Have we hit Peak Neo-Liberal?

At every time I turn, established racism theory is either the trump card, the unspoken anxiety or magic formula for, well, everything. Forget art, education, cooperation, mission, prayer, appeals for sacrifice, merry-making or the host of other avenues once tried, or rather, it seems they have been forgotten. Indeed, tolerance, independence and the principled minority stand seem to be quite out of favor. Forget, too, that non-white newcomers might not want to be a party to a proxy culture war. Or that there’s a personal benefit (power, self-esteem) for those who continue to raise the flag and keep the cause going.

So back to my question in the incipit: is there a place for racism-theory dissent in the UUA? More than just Will Shetterly’s witness, too. And if not, how can the situation be changed?