Sermon: Class and the Welcome Table

This is the second sermon in our “Back to the Basics” series on “Who’s Got a Place at the Welcome Table?”

Psalm 62: 5-12

Ben Bolaños’ story:  

Fremont, Ohio. 1985-86.

There are moments in your life where time slows down.  A snapshot of an event imprinted in successive images.  Do you know what I mean?  Here’s mine.  Image — A 13 year old Latino boy, holding a short dowel connected to a roll of thick, coarse string and standing in a row of tomato plants, slumped over as if fatigued. Image — Bending down and tautly tying the string across rows of lonely wooden poles supporting the plants.  Over and over.  Image — looking up to the sun glaring down.  Hot. Thirsty. Time? Don’t know.  Imag — Hands, calloused, pain, back. pain.  Image — He looks over and sees the head migrant worker telling him to redo that row.  “!Oye, mas apretado!” (tighter)  Image — Hand gently pressed on shoulder. “Mijo, we don’t get paid for loose string. Me entiendes?” (you understand me).  “Si Tony. Perdon” (Yes, Tony. sorry). 

That was me, the boy. I was introduced to hard work and a simple faith by Tony, a migrant worker and devout Christian, loyal and steadfast.  He was part of my father’s church, and my father adored him so much that he entrusted Tony to take me under his wings and work the way the poor always have — with their hands, bound to an unyielding faith to a God that provides and heals.  There was no choice.  A simple faith. My parents? Educated. One trained as a sociologist, the other a theologian.  I was middle class, or so I thought.   For myself, I was stuck between the poor, the simple and the complicated.  In others words,  I did not belong to either.  I could not fully relate to my migrant friends nor was I entirely accepted  in the white academic culture of school. Image — A poor white girl walks up to me and coolly says, “Your lips are big. You’re a N———.” Image — I laugh at her stupidity. I was better than her..

Fast forward.  EMU, Harrisonburg VA. 1991.

I went to EMU  and that’s where, instead of things becoming easier,  they became harder. Now I was in a Mennonite culture that seemed like everybody was brilliant, uptight and insular. A.K.A “The mennonite game.”  I had to learn to navigate this culture because that is what outsiders have to do for the insiders.  The latter had no incentive to navigate my culture, other than the usual missionary relationship that was offensively paternalistic.   I was also struck by both the Anabaptist emphasis on non-materialism as it alienated them  from God but then also this accumulation of wealth represented in nice furniture and artwork.  Just looking at where people lived in their homes was sometimes funny to me.  Wow, you really don’t walk the talk do ya? 

Mennonite culture and thus faith feels like high religion: educated, know it all, and less spiritual.  It feels wealthy and prosperous.  Latin American faith was very simple. For the poor. For the forgotten.  There was no choice but to embrace the God of healing, of spirit, of intimacy. Mennonites were very complex to me, with a lot of ambiguity and contradiction.  Work hard? yes.  Intellectual? yes.  Simple? No. Straightforward? Definitely not.  Poor? For the most part, no.  And yet they tried to talk like they knew what it was.  Moving back and forth in between these orbits was very difficult for me. I either betrayed my Latin American faith and culture, or I betrayed the white high-class academic culture.   The truth is I didn’t fit into either.  I had to choose which part of me to present: The brown boy in the field or the brown man in the library. 


One of the interesting things about Zoom worship is we get a window into each other’s lives. This intimacy is one of the things many of you like about using Zoom. We see our pets, our living rooms, the photos on our walls — we get to know each other better this way. But Zoom’s window into our homes can also communicate something else about us — our socioeconomic class. Andrew Ramer said to me, a few weeks ago, “I had no idea how middle class we were until we went on Zoom, and I started seeing everybody’s homes.”

Like most people in this country, we don’t talk much in this congregation about class — unless it’s spoken of in terms like “income inequality” or “the 1% and the 99%” or the “homeless crisis.” Like most of the country, we tend to look more at the extremes: the rich and the poor. While this is obviously important to look at, it doesn’t encompass the whole of class and how it operates within our society. I think you heard more of that subtly in Ben’s story, as he navigated a complex race and class landscape — between being in a poor migrant congregation and being in an educated, middle-class Latinx family and being among educated, middle-class white Mennonites. 

To give us even more of a window into class, I’m going to play this two-minute except from the 2001 documentary, “People Like Us: How Social Class Divides Us,” which I recommend in its entirely. Even though we may not talk much about class, most of us, I think, have quite good class radar. We know, just by seeing someone for a few seconds, where they fall on the class ladder. As you watch this video, see how quickly you are able to suss out the class of the people shown and notice what reactions you have to them. (4:33-6:39)

I grew up in what was, at the time, a working and lower-middle-class Amish Mennonite community. Most people were in the trades or were farmers; most hadn’t gone to college. But I didn’t realize I had a class — because we were pretty much all the same — until I went to the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to get a graduate degree in feminist liberation theology. The first day there, when I was invited to afternoon sherry with the Dean, I realized these were not my people. I didn’t go to the event. I never felt like I fit in the whole two years I was there, except with the people in my masters’ program, which was made up of a number of working-class women of all races. We talked a lot about class as a key structural element in our society, in addition to gender and race and sexual orientation. 

Since then, I have travelled quite far from the class in which I — and Jerome — were raised. I have never stopped being aware of class, though, even as I am aware that I often hesitate to bring it up. What’s that about? But over the past few years, as we have seen the ascendency of Trump, and as I have seen my home community line up firmly behind him,  I have come to believe that we will never heal the divisions and injustices of our society unless we start to talk about and understand class. 

So, let’s start with where we are. With us. Just as, last Sunday, we talked about how cultural supremacy or exclusivity may unconsciously keep us from extending a full welcome to people, how might unconscious class supremacy or exclusivity do the same?  One example: I think we generally think of our Mennonite Voluntary Service program as a way for the volunteers to “give back to society,” to “be of service.” As a way for volunteers to learn to practice simple living for a year. But there’s a lot of class assumptions in that way of thinking. Sally Mitchell, an MVSer from a working-class background who was here several years ago, didn’t see MVS that way. She saw it not as an experiment in simple living but as a step up and went into it because of the greater economic security it offered. She saw MVS as a way of being taken care of for a year, without having to worry about basic needs. And she was keenly aware of the class difference between her and the other MVSers, who came from middle-class backgrounds. 

Another example: Jennifer Adams has said that she feels our scent policy is classist because it assumes that people have the money to change to fragrance-free products, which are usually more expensive. And Joanna asks: How much of being a “good” Mennonite is bound up with being middle class? The focus on service — which assumes that you have time and resources to do service; the emphasis on giving money to organizations like MCC; sending your children to pricey private Mennonite schools and colleges; sending your youth to Mennonite church conventions.

What’s even more intriguing to me is how our class influences our faith. Ben’s story did such a great job drawing out that connection. It is generally true that as folks become more wealthy and more educated (especially if they are white), their faith becomes more intellectual and cerebral, less emotional and emotive. Think Grace Cathedral versus the Pentecostal church on the street corner. You can really see this in music. Hymns versus praise songs. Or hymns versus spirituals. My working-class church community sang hymns, but they were the more “lowbrow,” emotional ones that, I found out later, more educated Mennonites looked down upon as “sentimental” or “cheesy.”  Songs like: “How Great Thou Art,” “Up from the Grave He Arose” and any hymn with a text by Fanny Crosby, such as: “A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord, a wonderful Savior to me. He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock, where rivers of pleasure I see. He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock that shadows a dry, thirsty land. He hideth my life in the depths of his love, and covers me there with his hand.” There’s an emotionality in this song and a dependence on Jesus that I was trained out of the more educated I became. But these were the hymns my Mom wanted me to sing to her as she was dying, as did Alma Bolaños.

It’s also generally true that the more wealthy and educated you become, the more you feel like you can control your life — the more self-reliant you feel and the less reliant you need to be on God. Or, as Ben put it: For the working poor he grew upon among, “there was no choice but to embrace the God of healing, of spirit, of intimacy.” I love Jennifer Adams’ honesty when she says: “The reliance on God looks so different between working poor folks and middle-class folks. I love the theological and intellectual conversations we have here, but the thing that I miss from my Texas church community that’s more diverse in terms of class is the reliance on God many of the working poor folks in my community had. I sometimes think: God is for people who need God. It’s not for me. I’m making my salary and enjoying my books and eating fancy cheese.”

I am not saying any of this to make us feel guilty or bad for the faith we have or don’t have. But I am hoping to leave you with three things to ponder:

  1. Can we become more aware of how our class might affect our faith — and if we want it to? Especially as we get into tougher times, do we want to allow our class socialization to keep us from a more robust reliance on God, or Spirit, to keep us from spiritual power that could be ours but that, perhaps, we’ve been taught to intellectualize and keep at arms’ length? 
  2. Just like we have been working on becoming more trauma-informed, can we become more class-informed so that we might become more aware of how we may be unintentionally excluding folks by giving them the sense that they don’t really fit in here (just like I felt at my Episcopal seminary or like how Ben felt at Eastern Mennonite), or by even poking fun at their expressions of faith? 
  3. Can we ask: Who do we feel called to be in solidarity with? How is that affected by our class? As Joanna put it, “As a renter and as someone with a modest income, I tend to feel more solidarity with the working-class folks in Faith in Action than with our congregation overall, because they are in the same precarious position. And I wonder how income and assets or lack thereof inform the solidarity of others in the congregation?” 

I want to end with a quote that Jennifer Adams gave me from Gordon Cosby, who was the founder of the Church of the Saviour, one of the first interracial churches in Washington D.C., and a church movement that had women, people of color and the poor in positions of leadership at a time when all of that was not common:  “To really belong to one another and to depend on one another – to really share a common destiny – is difficult for a community that wants to be diverse. It is also the community’s only hope of survival.” May we grow in becoming that community of belonging, of depending on each other, of sharing a common destiny.