Confessions of a Blue Collar Unitarian Universalist

Rev. Don Beaudreault
First Parish Unitarian Universalist, Brewster, MA
September 6, 2015

OPENING WORDS: #567 (Responsive) “To Be of Use” – Marge Piercy

We in the United States celebrate Labor Day tomorrow, a day that became a federal holiday in 1894 to honor the American labor movement.

Part of the history around this included various strikes by labor  unions and other labor organizations for better working conditions, including 8-hour work days and higher wages.

Some of these strikes ended tragically with demonstrators, police, and in some instances the National Guard clashing – with injuries and deaths occurring. Notable among these were the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886 and the Pullman Strike in 1894. By the way, George Pullman, founder of the Pullman Company (which built railroad cars), was a Unitarian-Universalist.

And today? What is our national situation concerning labor statistics?

– the unemployment rate in the US today is 5.3%. In 2010 it was 9.6%

– but although this does sound like an improvement, remember that many people are forced to work at jobs for which they are overqualified, and many work more than two jobs or more than 40 hours a week

– the hourly minimum wage is $7.25 unless it is the state minimum wage of $5.25. Of course, “benefits” often are not included.

– there is discrimination in job hiring practices and in payment because of your gender, sexual orientation, color, physical capability, etc.

– 14.5 percent in the US are at poverty level

– 17 million American children go to bed hungry every day

– there are 1.5 million homeless children in the United States

– there are 326 million documented people living in the United States

– there are about 11.4 million so-called “illegal” immigrants in the United States today – more than half of them are Mexican – accurate labor statistics concerning the undocumented are impossible –

And according to a NY Times article (by David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy, 4-22-14):

The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower-and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.

After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada…now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.

(The above statistics from a variety of sources.)

Saying all this, it is Labor Day weekend. It is a time to remember those who have worked so long and hard in shaping this country and those who still do so – whatever official documentation they might have; and despite what hate-mongering is going on among those running for US president and among those who support them when it comes to deporting those 11.4 million so-called “illegals” including the children of those in this category who were born in this country and are legally US citizens.

Think on these things when you celebrate Labor Day.

Let us spend a moment in silent meditation.

 SERMON: “Blue Collar Unitarian Universalism”

From “The Mail Bag” from Class (adapted) – Paul Fussell

Dear Madam: We are a young couple about to buy our first home. May we assume that a fireplace has more status than a garage? The Hopefuls

Dear Hopefuls: It does, but the garage shows: go for the garage. And don’t say “home” – it’s vulgar.


Dear Madam: What about the class aspects of standing on the sidewalk in a large city and eating a hot dog…bought from a street peddler presiding over one of those little carts? Puzzled

Dear Puzzled: Only people very expensively dressed or terribly good-looking can do this without impairing their status. Middle-class people demean themselves further by doing this sort of thing…


Dear Madam: I am an Englishman planning to emigrate to the United States. Can you help me by explaining the class system there? Tony Blair

 Dear Mr. Blair: No, you’d never get it – much too complicated. You must be born and nurtured here. But you should have no worries, because here the fact of British birth raises your class at least one notch, no matter how nondescript and fourth-rate you may in fact be.


Dear Madam: I have been living in Georgetown for thirty years and find I must move to Del Rio, Texas. Will I suffer a loss of caste? Nervous

 Dear Nervous: How can you ask? You’ll never be able to show your face in civilized company again. But at least you’re not moving to Miami.


Dear Madam: My bank teller embarrasses me terribly by saying at the end of the transaction, “Have a nice day.” I don’t know what I’m supposed to say back. Can you help? Sincere

Dear Sincere: I suppose you can say “You too” or “Have one yourself,” although this last, like “Have one on me,” would sound a bit flippant. You should never say “Mind your own business” – that would be very rude. The best response to “Have a nice day,” I think is the one devised by a British friend of mine. He says: “Thank you, but I have other plans.” Perfectly polite, and yet it leaves no doubt that you are not in that person’s social class.


And so, we have spoofed the class system. And yet, “classism” as a term designating the thought and actions of some who are negatively critical of others because they are in a different social class from their own – can be a most insidious form of discrimination.

In his study of the classes in American contemporary life, Paul Fussell (whose reading we have just used) both humorously parodies every single one of us (since each of us is in a class – some of us attempting to straddle various classes) and, at the same time, seriously criticizes us.

It’s a great book, as Fussell romps and raves hither and yon through the descriptions of who we are and how we act.

Which brings us to Unitarian Universalism. What? You think there are no classes without our free and liberal religious movement? Think again!

I know there are various social classes within Unitarian Universalism – because as a minister, I have served people from all of them – and I know how some are faking where they came from! And that would sometimes be me.

So I want to confess:

I am a Blue-Collar Unitarian Universalist.

Not only that, but over the years, from when I first attended a Unitarian Universalist church 53 years ago until now, I have, on occasion felt discriminated against.

So, you see, what I am talking about this morning is the subject of “inclusivity.”

Or, to use another current term “diversity.”

I bring all this up because I, myself, have sometimes felt left out by Unitarian Universalists who come from formally educated families and/or who were born and raised as Unitarians or Universalists – or as a combined version of these two faith traditions.

I bring this up because I know that some other UUs have felt like I do.

When I tell them that I know what they mean, they usually look at me askance. I tell them that I am a fake. That I know my origins and am proud of them as a half Scotch-Irishman and half Frenchman from solid blue-collar – not blue-blood – American stock.

It wasn’t until I went to college that I heard my last name pronounced the way a French-speaker would pronounce it. When my freshman logic professor read the roll and called my name, I didn’t answer!

I used to talk the way my mother talked – with an Appalachian sound, one that comes back to me now and then.

So, over the years, when I have occasionally “come out” as a blue-collar Unitarian Universalist to those whose backgrounds have been similar, I also try to assure them, despite the fact that they feel “different” and don’t know if they will stay in the church of such “high-brows” and “rich people” and “talkers” and “doers” that being a Unitarian Universalist is not about anything other than the desire to be free to question assumptions and discover the truths for one’s self; that it is about being open to being who they are and open to hearing different opinions and accepting different lifestyles from their own.

But I also tell them – in a sad and longing way – that this free-faith movement could be much larger if those who are currently in the pews and pulpits would reach out to those who might very well be unlike themselves in most ways except for the fact that they, too, believe in a non-doctrinal, non-dogmatic, non-creedal approach to religion which propounds an ethical approach to living on this planet.

Indeed, what I am talking about this morning is the subject of “inclusivity” and “diversity.”

Very telling is the UUA report from the Commission on Appraisal (2001) which states:

While our Principles affirm that we would welcome someone who is very different from us, many of our members feel we should recruit among those who match the demographic characteristics of our current membership. New members should fit in or be like us for us to grow, and therefore there is little challenge to confront change. From 1950 until 1960 many Unitarian congregations said they wanted to be diverse, and in theory had a faith that was open to all—or a “religion for one world,” as Rev. Kenneth Patton once said. Yet the one world they promoted looked very much like themselves…

Our yearning for diversity does not include differences of class. There is a long history of assumptions that people of different classes, cultural groups, and ethnic backgrounds would not be attracted to our rational, liberal faith. So our public expression of a democratic faith open to all does not find practical application among us. Therefore, the Commission on Appraisal concluded, our practice “does not always match the Principles we espouse.”

Let me expand on this a bit by telling some more of my story as a blue-collar UU in three memorable places:

When I talk about my serving the Unitarian Universalist Church in Charleston, WV I have referred to myself as “the bishop of West Virginia.” No one but myself designated me this, but I thought it was rather apropos, given the fact that at the time I was the only fully accredited, fellowship, and settled UU minister in the state!

When colleagues heard that I was working in West Virginia, even those not from the hub of the universe – that is to say, Boston – were amazed. Knowing that I had most previously worked in the Los Angeles area, my friends could not figure out why I would want to be in West by-God Virginia! “What are you doing there?” was their common question. You know, a form of classism at its worse! “What?” they were probably thinking “UUs in them thar’ hills?”

Being half-Appalachian I relished that ministry. It was a wonderful change from the urban sprawl – and the crowded conditions, smog, and crime that went with it. But even in saying this, I guess my judgment is also a form of classism, is it not?

Well, yes there are UUs in West Virginia – even if most of them would never join the church. Indeed, I would get about a call per week from someone asking about our beliefs, and after hearing my response, would say “Guess I’m one of you!”

But then, if and when the caller would actually come to a service s/he usually felt left out – because in West Virginia as in every place where there is a community of UUs, we have a learned and sophisticated group of people! Or at least we think we are.

I have also visited the Unitarians in the Visayan Islands in the Philippines, where, preaching to farmers and fisher folk in a tin hut during a typhoon, I was amazed at feeling my commonality with their striving for meaning and purpose beyond so-called “prescribed” religion. They were liberal, but were uneducated people when it came to school, doing the best they could under dire circumstances.

And I worked as a minister in England with 7 congregations  – serving the highly educated city dwellers of Liverpool and their magnificent “cathedral” as well as serving the descendants of the once-coal-mining area around Wigan – where the sanctuary is built directly over an old mine, causing the building to list to one side! It was the only place that I literally fell out of the pulpit!

Opposite types of Unitarians, indeed. But all Unitarians.

There is a story about those Victorian Liverpool Unitarians – some of the major movers and shakers of the Industrial era in England, that speaks of class discrimination.

The truth is that only the elite Liverpudlian Unitarians attended the Sunday morning services in that block-long cathedral – perhaps the most lavish Unitarian church building in the world -replete with priceless statuary, paintings, silver Communion sets, and thousands of very rare books.

There were other Unitarians in Victorian Liverpool as well – many of whom were the servants of those very rich industrialists. These and others of a lesser economic status were not allowed to enter the sanctuary on Sunday morning. But they were expected to be attendance on Sunday evening – with those who were like them.

So much for a bit of our British Unitarian history. But it is not one, I assume, that differs from the Bostonian type of Unitarianism more than 200 years ago.

Truly, my friends, there should be room at the table for all those of like mind and heart concerning things liberally religious, where what you are (your sociological class) is not important; but who you are (as a person) is.

Yes, Unitarian Universalists are varied – even if some will never know they are Unitarian Universalists. Had I not “stumbled” upon this proud faith when I was a teenager from the blue-collar side of the American spectrum, I do not know if ever I would have discovered it.

Truly, my dream – indeed my vision – for our religious movement is to be a community of “both-and” rather than one of “either-or.” Where there is room for all of us, beyond classifications.

And so may we grow in knowledge and love, so that this vision – that is not solely mine – might become a reality.

And may we heed the words of the hymn “This Old World” (#315 in Singing the Living Tradition):

We’re all children of one family, we’re all brothers, sisters, too;
If you cherish one another, love and friendship come to you.

This old world can be a garden, full of fragrance, full of grace;
It we love our neighbors truly, we must meet them face to face.

CLOSING WORDS: “To Serve the People…”

To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people. It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets, or robes. All people are members of the same body, created from one essence. If fate brings suffering to one member the others cannot stay at rest.