Robin Barraza: Stuff White People Like


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Stuff White People Like March 18, 2012 Robin Bartlett Barraza First Parish in Brookline Something we don’t often talk about in Unitarian Universalist churches is the fact that we have a culture. We may not have uniting theological principles, dogma or creed, but we have a culture. It’s a culture that is pretty elite in its specificity. Now, mind you, this is the culture I grew up in, so it is one that is close to my heart—the one most familiar to me. I love my UU peeps. And I can spot them a mile away. Whenever I go to a UU conference that involves air travel, I can always pick out my fellow UUs at the airport by what they are wearing—flowy purple, message T-shirts, birkenstocks and socks …or even what they are buying in an airport restaurant—“is this baklava vegan?” And this gives me a strange sense of comfort … this fact that I know who my people are. My people make me feel at home; like I belong; like I “get” the cultural landscape. And because I get my people so well is why I love the blog “Stuff White People Like.” I know it’s a provocative title -- it’s satire. Have you ever read it? It could be called “Stuff Unitarian Universalists like”. Let me give you a sampling of some of the 132 things that are on the list: Stuff White People Like: #112 Hummus #108 Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music #107 Self Aware Hip Hop References #101 Being Offended #100 Bumper Stickers #99 Grammar #98 The Ivy League #94 Free Healthcare #90 Dinner Parties #88 Having Gay Friends #82 Hating Corporations #81 Graduate School #78 Multilingual Children #75 Threatening to Move to Canada #64 Recycling #63 Expensive Sandwiches #62 Knowing What’s Best for Poor People #61 Bicycles #60 Toyota Prius #59 Natural Medicine #50 Irony #48 Whole Foods and Grocery Co-ops #47 Arts Degrees #44 Public Radio #40 Apple Products #35 The Daily Show/Colbert Report #32 Vegan/Vegetarianism #28 Not having a TV #23 Microbreweries #22 Having Two Last Names #18 Awareness #16 Gifted Children #15 Yoga #13 Tea #12 Non-Profit Organizations #9 Making you feel bad about not going outside #7 Diversity #6 Organic Food #5 Farmer’s Markets #3 Film Festivals #2 Religions their parents don’t belong to #1 Coffee We laugh because it’s true, right? Stuff White Liberals Like, is really the subtext, and it sounds like the stuff we hold in common in our churches. The problem is, these characteristics make it hard for people who don’t share these things in common to break in to the culture of our churches. The problem is, these characteristics are indicative of a certain race, class and educational status. Yes, we have a problem, and it is a big one. We have a problem because when I come to church, I feel comfortable and happy and like I “belong”—not because every person belongs at the welcoming table God has set before us—but because I am surrounded by familiarity. My fellow NPR enthusiasts. My fellow pinko commies. My fellow graduate degree holders. My fellow social workers. My fellow Democrats. My fellow hummus-eaters. It is a problem that when I go to an airport, I can spot a UU in the line at Starbucks. It is a problem that when I’m looking for a UU church I have never been to, I need only to look at the bumper stickers on the cars to find it. Why is this a problem? I’m sure you’re thinking that. It’s a problem because our Unitarian Universalist theology makes it quite clear that ALL people are our people, not just the ones with the “my other car is a broom” bumper stickers. Our Unitarian Universalist theology tells us that all of us are born of the same source, fated to the same destination—not just those of us who voted for Barack Obama. Our Unitarian Universalist theology tells us that we must love our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus taught us…and that all people are our neighbors, not just the ones who drive Priuses. This cultural homogeneity within my faith community is a problem. This cultural homogeneity means that I don’t get to practice with representatives from the whole of the human family to build this world we dream about it. This cultural homogeneity within my faith community ensures that those who are here on the margins of this culture—and these people are here today —these people are here now—do not feel as though they can be fully who they are. And this cultural homogeneity within my faith tradition means that all are not fully welcome at the welcoming table—not without some serious assimilation. And my culture—the culture of my beloved UU faith tradition—is possibly more shaped by social class than it is by race or ethnicity, and it is a historical bugaboo that hasn’t gone away. Unitarianism in particular has long had a class problem, particularly in the United States of America; particularly here in Boston. The Unitarians were part of the Boston elite; they were the ruling class for a long time in this city. At one point in the 19th century, 70% of the people holding political office and power in the city of Boston were Unitarian. Harvard University was Unitarian, so Unitarian became synonymous with the educationally, political and economically elite. And current day Unitarian Universalism hasn’t changed all that much in terms of class from the 18th and 19th centuries. Class is a complicated, almost ineffable thing to talk about, isn’t it? Class is about so much more than socioeconomic status, after all. Class is about pedigree and education as much as it is about the amount of money you have. For instance, my brother is a high school drop-out and a truck driver, but he was brought up by college-educated parents from the white middle and upper class respectively. He makes more money than I do. But he still feels alienated when he hangs out with my hyper-educated friends. And yet, he knows which fork to use when he goes out to a fancy restaurant, thanks to his upbringing. Class is hard to talk about because it is so much more complicated than socioeconomic status and whether you hang out at dive bars or eat caviar. We know that education has a lot to do with the reason why Unitarian Universalism has this class “problem.” According to a 2008 study by Trinity College on trends in Unitarian Universalism, not only do we have one of the highest educated populations within our denomination compared to other faiths, but the amount of people who have post-graduate qualifications is three times the national average. Three times. So though my brother was raised in a UU church and still believes strongly in Unitarian Universalist principles, it is no mystery to me why he has barely set foot in one since he left high school. He would have few people to talk to at coffee hour, where the conversation often turns to what one does for a living or where one went to college. In fact, my brother avoided our church like the plague after he dropped out of high school, so fearful he was of facing people who would ask him what college he was going to next year. And yet, this is hard for us to talk about because we work so hard—so hard—to make a more equal and just world for all people. We overwhelmingly care about inequality in the world, and earnestly put our money and our time toward this goal. One need only to look at the sheer amount of doctors and social workers and teachers and social justice lawyers and therapists in a UU congregation to see that this is true, never mind the vast amount of justice work we are known to do as a denomination. Doug Muder, in his article “Not My Father’s Religion,” says: “Like our race problem, the class problem seems paradoxical to many UUs: We try to stand for all people, but when we look around, we’re usually standing with people like ourselves. We promote equality, but perversely, the less privileged would rather join conservative churches, churches that seem to us to serve the interests of the rich and to tell everyone else that it’s their own damn fault their lives are such a struggle. One reason this paradox is hard to talk about, I think, is that a lot of us believe an explanation that we don’t want to say out loud: Working-class people are stupid. The powers-that-be have duped them into pining for Heaven instead of changing Earth. It’s a tempting explanation because it absolves us. When the working class doesn’t listen to us, we don’t have to ask if we’re being stupid—if we’re really talking only about our lives, not theirs. And this is certainly the implicit message I got growing up UU. We are in this church because we are smart. Too smart to believe any of that supernatural mumbo jumbo. Too smart to be Republican. Too smart to sing treacly songs like “In the Garden”. Too smart to believe anything that the Catholic Church or the evangelical church or, God forbid, Pat Robertson says. The sermons we heard sounded like college lectures, and were about discernment and optimism more than they were about making it through this life unscathed for the next. Just the other day, the Charles Bukowski quote -- “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, and the stupid people are full of confidence” -- was going around Facebook, and I thought, “Yeah, that sums up the implicit message of Unitarian Universalism at its worst.” I am not denying the overwhelming research that links atheism, agnosticism, or at least a more nuanced approach to religion--to education and IQ. It is real. And it makes sense, and people who doubt and question and don’t believe in supernatural answers to existential questions flock to our churches, as they should. They almost literally don’t have many other places to go. But here lies the crux of our class problem -- one that won’t be overcome without a HUGE culture and theological change that seems frankly impossible at times. I was talking to a friend the other day, and he said that he didn’t think our class problem could be overcome within our churches because most of the populace isn’t looking for theological plurality when they are picking churches. Most people are looking for certainty, for orthodoxy, for answers that focus on the next world because the current world stinks so badly for them. And I have been thinking about that for a while, because I don’t experience UU churches as much different in a desire for orthodoxy, really. We are just as quick to be orthodox in approach to our faith. We are just as quick to create in-groups and out-groups based on beliefs. “That church is too Christian to be UU”; or “Did she just proclaim Jesus was her savior? Perhaps she’d be more comfortable in the UCC church across the green.” Joys and concerns in some churches are filled with stumping for leftist political candidates, suggesting a political orthodoxy. And at the same time, just like every group of human beings on Earth, we long for organizing principles and shared beliefs. We long for belonging. The way the UU Principles, meant simply to be a business resolution for how our congregations might relate to one another at a General Assembly in the 1980s, have caught on with creed-like power. The fact that our principles are taught catechetically in UU churches around the country shows that this is true. And this isn’t all bad; our desire for a creed. Truly, it’s just human. I’m going to say something perhaps controversial to many UUs. Perhaps to many of you. I believe a shared theology is what will save us as a denomination -- and, quite literally, as a people adrift in our own cultural isolation. Why? Because when we share a theology, people from all walks of life are able to come together in service to it. When we share a theology, people share something in common that is deeper than who they vote for and whether they shop organic. When we share a theology, we are able to hold diversity -- even theological diversity. When we share a theology, it means something to be a UU beyond identifying as a white liberal. I think the unavoidable fact is that a shared theology would help our class and race problem. Because when we have a shared theology we have something to unite us besides a specific, elite culture. We have something that urges us to set a welcoming table for all. And I believe our shared theology has been there all along—sort of like the power that Dorothy had in the Wizard of Oz to go home—we have always had our ruby slippers, and didn’t know to click them and say “there’s no place like home.” Our home is our Unitarian and Universalist theologies. The Unitarian theology that holds that we derive from the same source, and the Universalist theology that holds we are destined to return to the source from which we came. The theology that tells us that we were conceived in love, born in love, and will return to love. From love you were born, and to love you shall return. This allows me to say to you that: If you are a professional with many advanced degrees, you belong here. If you are a single mom on welfare, you belong here. If you are a factory worker, you belong here. If you are pro-war or anti-war, you belong here. If you do not have a high school diploma, you belong here. If you are the CEO of a fortune 500 company, you belong here. If you represent Wall Street, or Main Street, you belong here. If you are homeless and addicted to drugs, you belong here. If you eat processed meat, you belong here. If you are a social worker, a non-profit director, a youth worker, a therapist, a teacher, you belong here. If you are an easily offended Whole Foods-shopping, Prius-driving diversity lover, you belong here. If you are a Republican gun owner, you belong here. If you need Jesus to walk with you through the garden to know that you are somebody, you belong here. If you are an atheist and you question the ultimate goodness of the universe but you recognize that living as though all are loved is a good and worthy goal, you belong here. If you believe that we need one another on this journey to wholeness, God knows you belong here. If you don’t feel it, if you don’t feel that some or any of the declarations I just made are really true yet, you belong here too--because it means we all have a lot more work to do, and we need all of you to do it. You belong here. You belong here. Margaret Fuller once wrote to her Unitarian father, “Your reluctance to go ‘among strangers’ cannot too soon be overcome; & the way to overcome it, is not to remain at home, but to go among them and resolve to deserve & obtain the love & esteem of those, who have never before known you. With them you have a fair opportunity to begin the world anew.” May we overcome our reluctance to go “among strangers,” for it cannot too soon be overcome. The truth is, we only have this lifetime to begin the world anew, and the longer we sit here at “home,” the less time we have to do it in. Be of courage. Hold fast to this faith. Preach not hell but hope. Amen.