So I know church is maybe not your milieu, but I hope this question has some broader applications and maybe deserves a broader answer.
I’m a lady in my early 30s who has been dating my wonderful boyfriend (late 20s) for a few years. We’ve been attending our church for 3 years, which we chose together. I was raised small town Protestant and my bf did the recovering Catholic/atheist thing for a number of years. We chose our church because, although it’s very formal (incense, fancy vestments, the whole bit) it’s a denomination that’s known for being really open-minded and liberal. We also liked the individual church we chose because it’s really beautiful and historic, and located downtown–so really, right in the thick of things. I wouldn’t call it a bad neighborhood per se (mostly because the idea of a neighborhood being “bad” is pretty racist) but during the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s, there were a few scary incidents and membership took a nosedive.
Fast forward to today. Our church’s membership is growing, and about 2 years ago my boyfriend decided he was interested in pursing a career in the church. To that end, he created a ministry that focuses on homelessness and food insecurity, which is an issue that’s very close to his heart, as both of his parents were homeless at different points. The bulk of the work is that, once a week, he hosts a lunch for anyone who wants to attend, free of charge. The demand is great, and seeing 100 people come through in 90 min is not unusual. Most of the people who come through are either homeless or food insecure, and many of them are people of color.
This is a ministry that a lot of people are really excited about–our priest has been a total treasure throughout the whole process, and Boyfriend is quickly gaining a reputation throughout the diocese. But there are others in the congregation who are…less enthused.
Having grown up in a really small town, I’m used to the petty politics of church life. Boyfriend is really, really not. I think the thing that’s been most surprising to me is how many people we consider close friends, despite the age and income gaps (lots of older, upper middle class white people), have said some really nasty shit just out of earshot. Just this last week, I found out that at our summer kickoff street festival (which was attended by a number of Boyfriend’s lunch regulars) a woman who I considered a friend apparently said, “This isn’t the [local homeless shelter]. This is disgusting.” I ended up making the decision to not tell Boyfriend about this, as it happened several months ago, and there didn’t seem to be any point in tainting his image of this particular woman. But suffice to say, this was not a one-off comment; there are A LOT of people who overtly or covertly agree, one or two of whom have been openly hostile.
I’m just flabbergasted. I think Boyfriend’s work is really important, and I’m super-proud of him. I’m just really disgusted because I feel like he’s really trying to walk the walk, as far as the Christian message goes, and he’s supported by the administration, but markedly less so by other people (some of whom I thought were our friends and/or are very influential in the community.) I mean, Jesus KINDA TALKS A LOT about the poor and the destitute…
How should I handle this sort of malarkey when it comes up? Chalk it up to an age/income/culture divide and let it lie? Quickly slap it down and put them in their place? I worry that not saying anything at all enforces the status quo, but equally I worry that going on the warpath against a bunch of old ladies isn’t a good look, either.
Captain Awkward was raised Catholic and educated by Jesuits, and while she may no longer talk the whole theological talk, she’s pretty down with the whole “Be kind to and take care of the people at the margins of society” message of the gospels and she’s met plenty of passive-aggressive church ladies and men in her day. Additionally, Captain Awkward has zero time and zero respect for crappy racist people who think that poor people are “disgusting” and who furthermore have the terrible manners to say that out loud and/or imply that they should not be included in church events. She also was raised not to say “Something is disgusting here; pretty sure it’s you and your repulsive views and not our guests” to the faces of little old ladies at church, so she understands that your question comes with a lot of taboos and received social norms.
Captain Awkward also sincerely promises to leave this whole talking-about-herself-in-the-third-person thing behind by the next paragraph.
There is a thing that a certain kind of terrible person (often a person of a certain age and social standing) does, where they rant about something in a way that is obviously meant to be overheard by everyone around them, but if you respond to it with anything but agreement they pull the whole “Well I wasn’t even talking to you, so you are the rude one for intruding on a private conversation!” gambit. They get to spout their terrible views AND act like a victim if someone actually calls them out on what they said. Racist ranters use the same tactics as rape-joke tellers to test the waters and see if their views will be challenged or tolerated by the people around them. If you stay silent, you offer them tacit approval or, at very least, affirm that they are socially powerful enough to get away with being assholes in public.
Don’t. Fall. For. That. Bullshit. You are not overhearing this mouth-garbage by accident, you are overhearing it because they want you to overhear it. They want you to know that they don’t like the work your boyfriend is doing and they think that he & you & people like y’all are “ruining” their church, but they don’t want to confront the issue directly by say, talking to the pastor, because on some level they know it makes them look like bad Christians (Hint: It does!). Furthermore, if you can overhear it, the people they are talking about can also hear it, ergo, they must be stopped. Age is not an excuse; if you can learn to Skype with your grandkids, you can learn to keep your goddamn racist thoughts to yourself.
When you run into these comments, I think there is a great deal of value in saying something back and not just silently ignoring it. That something can be:
- “Well bless your heart.” Def. use the tone that means,”Well, fuck you very much.”
- “Wait, did I hear you correctly? Did you just say that (Name) and (Name) are ‘disgusting’?” Use their exact words and include people’s individual names if at all possible, it’s a sharp reminder that they are talking about actual human beings & community members and an indication that they aren’t gonna be able to get away with, ‘you know what I meant’ or ‘you know, those people.’
- “I hope you’ll come to lunch service sometime and help out with the other volunteers sometime. I think you’ll feel very differently once you do.” That’s right. Out Church-Lady the Church Ladies.
If you start speaking up when you overhear this stuff, you’re gonna get pursed lips and clutched pearls and “Well, I never” or “You know I didn’t mean that” reactions and a lot of side-eye and harrumphing. Nobody likes being publicly called on their bullshit, especially not people who see themselves as the chief arbiters of what is acceptable. Just know that it’s coming and ride it out. And know, too, that you probably won’t change or open anyone’s mind by speaking up. Someone horrible enough to publicly express “ugh” reactions about guests at a church event probably isn’t going to have an epiphany at your doing, you know? That’s okay, because you’re not doing it for them. You’re doing it for yourself (so they’ll stop doing it around you, and to remind yourself that you have power here, too). You’re doing it for your boyfriend and the work he does, and for the younger people who are watching you for how they should be, and you’re also doing it for the guests of your church who will hopefully continue to find both food and welcome where you gather.
You’ve got this.
P.S. You might like this fantastic short film.