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Class – the church's hidden 'ism'
Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2006 Archives > March-April 2006 > Breaking the class barrier

Members of the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew in Manhattan work in the church’s food pantry.
Breaking the class barrier

Churches keep economic classes in mind when exhibiting 'open doors'

by Joey Butler

During a meeting of pastors, one attendee commented, "I think our church has open doors to all colors, but I'm not sure if we're open to the folks in the trailer court across the street."

While churches make efforts to be more inclusive, economic classism still exists. The Rev. K Karpen, pastor of the (United Methodist) Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew  in New York, says classism may be a bigger problem for the church than racism. Most of it is unintentional, but "it's the unconscious signals we give," said Karpen.

St. Paul & St. Andrew has a diverse congregation. It includes lawyers, producers, Broadway actors and singers, as well as those who are unemployed, struggling to make ends meet or homeless. The church is located on the Upper West Side of Manhatttan, in one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in New York, but the neighborhood's economic diversity changes "from building to building," Karpen said. In fact, he said, 25 percent of the people who use the church's emergency food ministry are local.

"A challenge for us is, how do we mix the groups so we don't have one group coming only to the food pantry and another group coming only to worship," Karpen said.

To combat this, Karpen periodically appoints some of the pantry visitors to lead worship, and church members and youth work at the pantry.

He also cited the church's lack of a formal dress code, relating the story of a member who came from a recovery program and didn't have dress clothes. The man shared how important the relaxed dress was to making him feel welcome.

The Rev. Suzanne Mades, pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, agrees that some of the smallest bricks form the biggest barriers.

Detail from collage art by Richard Saholt depicting homelesness. Used with permission.
Learning different small talk

"A lot of times, homelessness can be a bigger barrier than race," Mades said.

"How do you converse? The stereotypical 'middle-class' conversation starters are asking where you live and work. We learned to build conversation that didn't point out the cultural divide. We ask things like 'Where are you from?' or 'Where do you stay?'"

"Folks in poverty are conscious of being rejected and may not want to open themselves up to people they think will judge them."

Emily Reece, director of program and training for Igniting Ministry the denomination's welcoming ministry, said examples like Mades' are common.

"Classism is more likely to be unintentional, but it requires education," she said. "People tend to go to church where there are folks like them, but when a congregation is so similar, it may have more trouble bridging diversity issues."

Reece told the story of a church in another denomination she once served. The congregation was mostly upper-middle-class people, and had an emergency-aid ministry in which the trustees would meet with those in need of financial help. Some people raised concerns about whether to have the meetings in the church's parlor, which had expensive furniture.

"So they were doing a good thing by helping people struggling financially, but still sending out the signal that these people weren't good enough to sit on their nice furniture," Reece said. "That's a common problem: How do we reach out without being condescending? Only empathy overcomes stereotyping."

Mades said Wesley Church's attitude is "not an 'us helping them' approach, but more partnering with people on the margins to seek social justice."

The church has hosted a forum on poverty and homelessness. It was sparked when artist Richard Saholt donated a series of collages depicting homelessness to the church on the condition that they be used to educate the public.

Wesley Church is doing a study series on the Social Principles, and one section focuses on poverty and labor laws and the denomination's biblical mandate to "fight the systems that perpetuate the poverty cycle."

The Rev. Tex Sample. A UMNS photo
Not just about the homeless

There are more layers of economic strata than poverty and the upper class. It's important that churches avoid any practice that would single out any class.

The Rev. Tex Sample, coordinator of the Network for the Study of U.S. Lifestyles identifies what he calls three "rituals of inequality" in his upcoming book, White Working Class Resistance and the Politics of Jesus [Abingdon Press, (800) 251-3320].

The first "ritual" is giving and taking orders. Sample points out that, traditionally, the upper classes give orders and the working classes take orders. The same goes with the second ritual, giving and getting respect, and the third, deference and demeanor.

Sample writes that when people of the working class encounter these rituals -- which they likely face daily at their jobs -- in a worship setting, they'll probably look elsewhere.

"It is very easy for a pastor to enter quite actively into such practices of inequality," Sample adds. "Our education, our position of 'responsibility,' the kind of respect we are often accorded in a community: All of these can become occasions for our practice of the rituals of social inequality."

Sample says that many aspects of worship can alienate. They range from choice of music or manner of dress to "overeducated" theological language or an emphasis on the written, rather than spoken, word.

He continues, "I am especially concerned that the church not do what has too often been done in mission work: to bring an external culture -- in the case of working people, the culture of middle-class business and professional America -- and attempt to impose it."

Karpen said it really comes down to respect.

"Modeling respect goes a long way. I do my best to show everyone respect and I think people pick up on that.

"Whatever brings people into this church, one constant is that they feel respected and that they belong," Karpen said. "It's not any specific program; it's an attitude."


--Joey Butler, managing editor, Interpreter


How welcoming is your church?

Igniting Ministry, the denomination's welcoming ministry, offers a "Friendliness Audit," a personal assessment of how welcoming a congregation is to others. The audit lists various types of people (i.e., a smoker, an interracial couple, a political conservative or liberal) and readers check "yes" or "no" next to how they think each would be received.

'Welcoming is about recognizing everyone has a place and God's love is available to all," Igniting Ministry's Emily Reece said. "Our research shows that the key aspect of the United Methodist Church that appeals to seekers is our welcoming nature."

Copies of the Friendliness Audit are available for download here. Other welcoming materials are available at   or by calling (877) 281-6535.


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