Blue-Collar Welcome

HardhatWHEN I WAS STILL A FRIEND, I often heard tales of meetings wanting to be more welcoming. Friends spent a lot of time at committee meetings and meetings for worship or business discussing the topic. They talked about greeters, and potlucks, and literature, and how to be more “Friendly” to those they don’t know. But did Quakers talk about worship itself? One place I found particularly unwelcoming and sometimes hurtful was meeting for worship, and more specifically the ministry given.

I have working class roots. Growing up, all I saw was hard work—the kind that wore you out every single day so that you had little energy for anything more than pulling up the footrest of your recliner; the kind of work that required protective gear. Today I have lots of financial privilege, but in many ways I remain culturally working class. What I don’t remain is a Quaker, as I formally left the Religious Society of Friends in 2012. I’d like to, however, suggest some ways that Friends can be more welcoming to people like me.

During worship, I frequently heard references to things like GREs or NPR or CPAs, acronyms I didn’t know before moving to Minnesota at the age of 24. I heard about the trials and tribulations of graduate school and saw nods of understanding. Friends can find metaphors for ministry in complicated investment tools (which are still beyond my capacity to understand), academic treatises (which only recently have ceased to intimidate me), and even, once, in another Friend’s blog, in all the discipline required for doing middle class taxes (I always use 1040 EZ, one page, no tracking required).

Beyond using words and metaphors that aren’t accessible, sometimes the ministry is hurtful. Just a few years ago, a man stood to talk about all the help he’d gotten to get where he was, a retired and published college professor. He went on to describe a woman he’d helped at his private elite liberal arts college, and then stated his utter shock that she was so smart and talented even though she’d transferred from her local community college in northern Minnesota. It made me think that I shouldn’t tell him that I’d only recently graduated with a bachelor’s, at 40, from Metropolitan State University, a school perceived by many to be at the lowest tier of four-year schools in Minnesota, often where community college graduates finish their bachelor’s degree.

Another time, a dentist talked about her “a-ha” moment when she realized how unfair the labor trade was that she’d done with a man who painted all the walls inside her house. She’d given him partial dentures that took an hour of her time and little effort and didn’t realize how much time it took to paint her walls until later, when she painted just one room. She seemed to be using the story to “teach” us about economic inequality. There were a lot of assumptions in her story; the biggest one was that we all needed to be schooled about what it’s like to be working class.

I have some suggestions about making your Quaker community more welcoming and less hostile to those who don’t seem to be like what you perceive a “Quaker” should be, some suggestions to make social class more conscious in worship.

1. Create explicit ways in meeting to address hurtful issues like these when they come up. My former meeting has channels to flag ministry that’s considered inappropriate in Friends’ ways (responding in a defensive way to a previous person, speaking right after another, using the platform to advance something overtly political or personal), but considering content seemed verboten.

2. Consider your use of education or finances or middle class professions as metaphors when you share a story at meeting. Is this something a hotel maid can relate to? A day laborer? A dishwasher? If not, is there another metaphor you can use?

3. You can only “preach” what you know, so you must speak from your own experiences. But as you reflect in silence before ministry, ask yourself if you’re assuming that your life and your story are universal.

4. This one is radical. Make it okay to talk about social class in your meeting in an open and honest way, even when you talk about the quality of ministry. Ask hard questions about how welcoming your worship is for poor and working class people of all races and ethnicities.


N. Jeanne Burns

This piece is adapted from a discontinued blog, Quakers and Social Class, begun in 2007 after the author attended George Lakey’s FGC Gathering workshop on social class. N. Jeanne Burns lives and writes in Minneapolis and is seeking a new spiritual home. In the meantime, she knits on Sunday mornings where Spirit is encouraging her to let go of perfection.

3 thoughts on “Blue-Collar Welcome

  1. I, too, am a former Friend, who did not fit into the socio-economic level of the Meeting I was attending.

    Small meetings have unique issues, like the costs of membership in FGC and other groups, that must be met by the membership, but the ability of a family or member to pay should be taken into account. This particular Meeting was also trying to obtain a meetinghouse, which would have cost each family several hundred dollars per month-more than my mortgage at the time, as a matter of fact, and was completely out of my financial league, but this was not something taken into account in the Meeting for Business. I felt like I was run out of the meeting because I could not meet the regular tithe-although I am sure they did not mean to do so. There was a committee who met with me regularly to try to help me figure out how to meet my obligations, but I was supporting a family of 4 on 14K a year, and it difficult for me to come up with gas to get to Meeting many weeks, much less meeting a large “required” tithe. This was humiliating for me and my children, and we eventually moved to a more welcoming church, that did not depend on and keep track of each person’s tithe.

    I miss Meeting for Worship, but do not miss the financial pressure, which was just one more stress in a stress-filled life. How many meetings is this happening in? How many good people is the Society of Friends losing because they feel they cannot afford to belong?

  2. Good points, but having served in a middle-class, suburban, evangelical meeting, it also would take a change in one’s philosophy or at the very least, a more open view to those who are “other”, be they poor, uneducated, “over-educated”, ethnic minorities, etc. I think your third point gets close to making this point. Just a genuine awareness of others and an interest in their lives can go a long way.

  3. It’s so sad that there isn’t more variety among friends. The richness of variety is so needed, and its absence is surely one of the factors which makes Quakerism a shrinking sect.

    I have a few thoughts based on the experience of my marriage. Afterall, meeting membership is a bit like a marriage, and so the connection is not unwarranted.

    My husband and I have been married 25 years. We have worked hard for what we have. He’s working class, an immigrant from another country and he knows the meaning and need for work. He works hard, incredibly hard, 6 days or more a week. I grew up in this country, middle class, my parents’ parents having pulled themselves from the working class on one side and having come from genteel European stock on the other.

    I will admit that when we married, people seemed concerned that our uneven backgrounds would lead to problems. There were a lot of assumptions I made based on a more privileged background, but at the same time I had, and continue to have, nothing but respect for the skill and craftsmanship that someone like him brings to whatever he does, and I think this respect has been hugely important in helping us get beyond our different life experiences.

    Above all, he and I have had to be resolute that there are real and compelling reasons that we are together, that we are more, so much more, than working class or middle class. The more we trusted that we were together for more significant reasons than our background, the more we grew in love and respect. At this point, after so many years, we have grown together to the point where class and background don’t generally rankle between us. We are one.

    If a Friends meeting was graced with the perception that everyone in the community of Friends is essential for the transformation of the Friends Meeting and Friends community, and were to recognize, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said so eloquently that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”– If there was recognition that I need you, no matter how uncomfortable it may make me feel, for my own redemption, and here you are beloved — that would be powerful stuff, so powerful that all the masks of class and background would fall away, and the kingdom of heaven would be established in that meeting.

    But this is not easy to do. It’s easy and a comfort to be among people whom one perceives as fellow travelers. How to welcome the stranger and beg them to travel with you, for your good and their’s… that’s the challenge.

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