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.
266 thoughts on “#819: ‘Ware The “Frozen Chosen””
Just wanted to comment to say your partner and you are doing a really commendable thing. Having been accidentally part of a church community (through being a chorister), I’ve seen more pseudo-charity and barely veiled racism & classism within such communities than I ever expected. I’m sorry you’re receiving it, and I just wanted to say, I think the Captain’s advice is spot on. If you feel safe and able, calling these people out is the best thing to do.
Brilliant answer, Cap’n. LW, hats off to your boyfriend for doing the good he does, and to both of you for trying to be true to and live out your beliefs each day. No disrespect meant to any believers here in denominations that fall under the salvation-by-faith-alone umbrella, but seems to me we have an epidemic, here in the US anyway, of people behaving NOT AT ALL like Christians in their daily lives but somehow thinking that’s OK just because they say they are.
It’s incredibly lazy, isn’t it? Dropping Christ’s name like it’s Gucci and gonna get you into the club, all the while hating what Jesus actually stood for. Vile.
I’m pretty sure that’s like the literal definition of taking the lord’s name in vain. IIRC, that’s something Christians are really not supposed to do.
Also, you have just given me the mental image of St. Peter as a bouncer at the Pearly Gates, which I appreciate greatly.
I would also add that maybe it would be valuable to talk to the supportive priest (or other folks in the church administration) about this and consider preaching on this topic at the pulpit, or even involving some of the lunch folks in services (not sure the exact roles giving your denomination, but in my church lay people will do scripture readings, provide a short testimony, light candles, help out with the children’s hour, help out with serving communion, etc.). Of course I’m sure not every person who attends the lunch wants to attend Sunday services and/or take on public roles like this, but the priest (along with your husband) might be able to identify some folks who would feel excited about being invited to do so. Being ‘called out’ (even anonymously) by a religious leader in the pulpit might give some of these people a bit of a wakeup call, and seeing some of the folks who attend the weekly lunch as leaders in the community could also provide a change in perspective.
I think anything you can do to get other people on board in terms of moving from an us-and-them approach would be great (for everyone). Church charity, even when people aren’t old bigots who flap their mouths about ‘undesirables’ and ‘these people’ can easily (in my experience) become something WE (the good church people) do to/for THEM (the unlucky/disgusting/marginalised/needy people) and that’s not a great dynamic. Persuading the old bigot brigade that ‘those people’ are actually ‘us’ as well is always an uphill struggle, so the more people you can get on board with that the better.
Agreed. At my church we (and by we I mean formal, elected leadership) work really hard not to have a “ministering” and “ministered-to” divide. Not everyone who shows up for a meal will become a member of the church, but many do, and participate in ministries (sometimes as a server or cook in a food ministry, but also, as a chalicer, or taking communion to shut ins, or arranging flowers or whatever). It makes such a huge difference for the entire community.
Church charity[…] can easily become something WE do to/for THEM
Excellent point. Kinda the ol’ “Give a man a fish/ treat a person as a long-term member of our community” wisdom.
Yes, my first thought was to discuss some of these concerns with one of the priests. You don’t need to name any names, but they should know these comments are going around in their community – it’s part of their responsibility, even. And as clergy they have influence you don’t.
That was my thought too. A nudge from the pulpit and a call to be more involved coming from the admin might be a way of getting support and leadership that probably should be aware this anyway.
Another thought: If you have a period of intercessory prayer in each service, give the priest a list of regular recipients and ask to have one of them included by name in the prayers each week. This reinforces the excellent point that these are people with names, just like us.
Pastor’s spouse and former church secretary here — I know from experience that practicing actual Christianity always offends some churchgoers. What your boyfriend is doing is the real thing, and bigger than the complaints of people who judge by appearances.
My only caution about that would be to be sure anyone whose is being identified publically knows about it and feels OK with that.
“I know from experience that practicing actual Christianity always offends some churchgoers.”
Truest thing I’ve heard today.
*heavy sigh* Yeah
It’s amazing how many people love to throw the ‘gay people are wrong, abortion is wrong, x-thing-I-don’t-agree-with-is-wrong it says so in the bible’, and yet when it comes to the only parts in the bible I really think are worth paying attention to – namely, helping each other out, aiding those who need aid without expecting anything in return and loving thy neighbor, they’re quick to disagree and say that it’s not their job or whatever.
but those things are haaaaaaaaard. reinforcing existing prejudices requires literally no work at all.
“And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.”
Far as I can tell, this has always been true.
Such a weird comment when you know about the vibrancy and diversity of Jewish ethical thought at the time when the Jesus story is set. I mean the “scribes” and “pharisees” cariactured in the New Testament were fascinating and complicated human beings who cared deeply about the poor; it’s not like Jesus would have actually been blowing their minds. I don’t know, I’m weirded out by the way Jewish people are described in the NT and I don’t think that the “Jesus was a Jew” line often given really cancels it out.
Yeah, I’m Anglican and about to have my daughter baptised, but the fundamental appropriation and distortions of Jewish thought and teaching at the heart of Christianity is a problem that both me and my partner get stuck on pretty regularly.
And a LOT of the reason I left church and later abandoned my faith altogether. Sick of the charades, hypocrisy and prosperity theology.
The people LWs partner is helping will know the difference between those who have a heart for them and those who are turning up because its the “christian” thing to do, but who dont like it.
This is the most depressingly true thing. Our old minister had a stroke, and at the Christmas party, one of the ladies came up with a “game” of gift swappping that essentially involved taking presents out of people’s hands and giving them the crappy gift you didn’t want. Our minister really liked this soft blanket and SOMEONE TOOK IT. She didn’t even fully *get* the game because she just had a stroke. And she got a cake cutter shaped like a shoe. Seriously, WHAT THE FUCK, CHURCH LADIES. At least my mother can be counted on to be decent. She stole back the blanket and gave it to our minister (and gave her our gift we brought).
LW, you ROCK, and you’re why churches can be an awesome community that helps people. It only takes one person to do the right thing. If someone says something shitty, maybe you could go over and just hang out with some of the homeless people who’ve attended? I kind of feel like the Church Ladies are trying to hurt them with their shitty little narrow minded purview in addition to trying to shame you. I’d feel really uncomfortable if I was at an event and a bunch of socially prominent people were shooting me daggers and whispering about me as if I weren’t there. Having one friend makes it a lot easier.
I really disagree with this advice, if only because, as an ex-evangelical, this is a great way to other and/or gossip.
I was signing in *just* to recommend this very thing. Talk to the priest/minister about what you’re experiencing and gently suggest that it could be a topic for an upcoming Sunday sermon. This issue is not new – even the Pope is dealing with trying to navigate a very Franciscan viewpoint amongst the.”old guard” Catholics who do not share those ideas.
This is great. A pointed sermon is not only a wakeup call, but is a very clear message to the Kitty-Butt Mouth Brigade that the pastor priest knows of and doesn’t approve of this nonsense.
Seconding the “Ask your priest if he could do a sermon about ministry to the poor” approach. Never underestimate the power of a good papal scolding.
I’m catholic and I go to a small local church. Due to priest availability issues, for a while both the spanish mass and the english mass needed to be held in the same time slot. With one being held in the church’s school auditorium (located in the basement of the building) and one being held in the church proper. Initially it was decided that the spanish mass would be held in the basement and the english mass would be held in the church but after a bit the priests decided “No you know what that’s racist, the spanish congregation deserves better than to be shunted into the basement, we’ll set up a rotational mass schedule so that both congregations can take turns at sitting in the church vs the basement.”
People lost their shit about it. Father got more complaints about that then I think he had about any administrative decision in the past. So the very next sunday during the homily he straight up called out the entire congregation and said “If any of you are outraged about anything, it should be that your brothers and sisters in christ are so systematically dehumanized that you see no problems with treating them like second class citizens and denying them basic human dignity.”
The complaints pretty much stopped after that. So if your priest is as awesome as you say definitely get him on your side for this. He might be afraid of losing part of the congregation after it’s already taken kind of a dip in the past 20 years, but even a gentle reminder to love thy neighbor can be a powerful thing.
LW, you and your boyfriend are amazing people. Thank you for being so amazing. The world needs more people like you two. 🙂
I personally find challenging the social arbiters to be really painful; then I feel cast out of community, and that brings on all sorts of bad feels. It helps strengthen my spine to have other communities that strongly support me and recognize how awesome I am. I hope you do not get this kind of pain from challenging these people for their nasty remarks, but, if you do, I hope you get the recognition and support you deserve from some other community, and I hope that strengthens your spine.
Oh church politics… And I was raised presbyterian in a church referred to as “the liberal cesspool” and we still had this crap.
If the pastor and folks are behind this program, you could try and either bring up the behavior with them OR try and get it incorporated into/mentioned in services (or both).
My church around the time of greet your neighbor, sign the book, etc. had a thing where they talked about events in the church community: [Church supper] is this Wednesday, Group A is recruiting for Mission Trip B, Habitat build after the service, we celebrate these births and anniversaries, we mourn these deaths, etc. Maybe it could be added “[Boyfriend] is [doing his thing] at [place X] on [date]. We send him with the blessing etc etc/[call for volunteers]” or “At Celebration we were pleased to see those served by [Boyfriend’s ministry]. He is truly doing etc”.
They’re fairly simple, but would show that he has the support of the church and would normalize it. It might also drive out the less tolerant because, let’s face, not all churches are for everyone. Even without mentioning bad behavior/specifics it should have some impact.
Additionally, you could get it in the bulletin. The churches in my presbytery all circulated bulletins. If this happens in your diocese, other churches in the diocese may also start mentioning it as well.
Speaking up in favor of carefully-crafted publicity. When announcements about this ministry are made, is it phrased as “Here’s this thing that Boyfriend is doing; contact him if you’d like to volunteer”, or is it phrased as “Here’s this thing that WE are doing; contact Boyfriend to volunteer”? Make it clear that the people Doing Good Stuff are the ones driving and defining the life of the church. If membership is growing, then you have a lot of people coming in for first impressions, so that’s important.
In one church I’ve been involved with, the homeless outreach programs have become that church’s big defining ministry. People keep adding to it, to the extent that the new Fellowship Hall was designed with it in mind (big professional kitchen, showers in the restrooms, etc.) which enables even more good work to get done. Keep asserting the central place of the work you’re doing. It builds momentum.
The comments around building inclusiveness as a central message of the Church in a variety of formats are amazing. LW will continuously define the ‘culture’ of their place of worship the more this is consciously done.
I agree. Just let it go and don’t even respond. I have a rule: Things said behind someone’s back is not worth repeating or responding to. Your boyfriend is doing what he feels he is “called” to do, and he’s helping a lot of people who are struggling. He sounds awesome to me. I come from a small town also and know how petty people can be in church. There are always haters in the church. You can’t control their behavior, but you can control yours. Take the high road and just ignore the haters.
I didn’t see anything about “ignoring” this terrible behavior. Ignoring it is basically giving it a pass and allowing that to be “normal”. I agree with CA that NOT ignoring it and saying something back (in a way that will fit with the culture) is the best idea, even if it’s hard.
She can’t make people do something that they don’t want to do. If she responds to them directly, they will get caught up in a back and forth argument that is not helpful to the situation.
And by keeping silent she tells those people that she condones that kind of behavior/talk. Not responding is the best way to keep the status quo, which 1) LW doesn’t seem to want to do, and 2) is not a good thing in this case.
These church goers are bold enough to call other people “disgusting” at a church function. Responding to them probably won’t make a difference. Some people just like being mean. The Bible says to “Turn the other cheek.”
Except that even that quote is subject to interpretation! The most current interpretation I have heard of that verse is here (http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/how-walter-wink-confronted-violence/): “By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand: his nose is in the way… The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship … By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying, “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I won’t take it anymore.”
Jesus did not endorse being a doormat.
Cara: it will make a difference to the people who are the target of the mean comment. Hearing someone stand up for you when they don’t need to can make a world of difference.
Jesus was all about calling people out for being hypocrites. I literally don’t know where you’re getting this from.
Ignoring things is literally the opposite of fixing it. It will NEVER go away.
Oh, and Jesus also threw some tables. C’mon now.
You don’t have to argue it back and forth. You don’t have to change THEIR behavior. The important thing is to make a statement to other people that you don’t think the comment was ok. Maybe some of the homeless people LW’s BF want to help were in earshot at that festival, wondering if they’ll be getting a big serving of contempt with every meal. Maybe when people in church talk about those disgusting homeless people, they don’t realize there’s somebody in the next pew who’s only a parking ticket away from homelessness (and horribly ashamed of needing help.)
Yes, don’t argue it back and forth. Don’t try to convince/persuade them.
Just state your objection.
And to end it, say this: “Nevertheless.”
It’s a full sentence. And then smile beatifically, and walk off.
No direct advice on your situation but I just wanted to recommend the book _Take This Bread_ by Sarah Miles if you already know it. It’s about a woman who starts a food pantry at her somewhat highbrow Episcopalian church. I think some of her struggles would resonate for you and your boyfriend.
Er, if you DON’T already know it. Sorry.
Thanks! We too are Episcopalians. Didn’t say it in the letter but I figured anyone who was also one would be able to identify it. This is…. an INTERESTING time to be an Anglican, to say the least. I will look into this book.
My pleasure, LW Church Lady. I applaud what you both are doing. I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of the book. Good luck.
LOL yes, I immediately identified it. 😛
Oh! You might also check out _Radical Welcome_ by Stephanie Spellers, who used to be the priest in charge of the 20s-and-30s/urban ministry at the cathedral in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Rev Steph is an amazing teacher and preacher, and her book opened a lot of eyes in my parish.
Yep, I had you pegged as Episcopalian (I am too!) with the very formal + really liberal. For just a minute I thought you might go to my church – also downtown, historic, and beautiful – but I think I would have heard about the issue before reading it here if it were my own church. Best wishes to you and your boyfriend – you’re doing great work!
LW, major high-fives to your boyfriend for finding a tangible way to put the messages he hears every Sunday into practice throughout the week.
I’d like to offer some additional scripts that worked for me:
“Well, there but for the Grace of God we go,” said in your best Miss Manners haughty tone. It’s so very true – ANYONE can be catapulted into food insecurity or homelessness.
Turn their force-everyone-to-tacitly-approve crap back on them: “Isn’t it wonderful that our church really puts the Gospel message into practice? Don’t you think it’s great how people are really taking the messages to heart? I wish more churches were like this!” Best said in a totally sincere voice. If you keep an eye on the other people listening, you’ll see some nods of agreement.
The rest of the Captain’s scripts are on-point. It’s all too easy for those of us in a congregation to rest on, instead of counting, our blessings, and to acknowledge that we didn’t *earn* all (or even most!) of them.
I like these suggestions – my first thought was definitely kill them with kindness. A really pointed “It’s so great to belong to a church that walks the walk on issues like supporting marginalized groups.” will at least set the standard for whether or not they feel comfortable expressing their warped view.
As another fancy-vestments-and-incense high church* kind of person who occasionally finds herself surrounded by pearlclutchers who don’t want to be made uncomfortable, here are two thoughts for you:
1) I’d go beyond “you have the right to confront them” and say “you really must confront them, for their own salvation and the future of the church.” Feeding the hungry is one of the corporal acts of mercy. It is one of the basic tenets of our faith.
2) It is actually damaging to assume that one can be Christian and live a comfortable life. The apostles were imprisoned, tortured, ridiculed, and martyred (except John). See this quote: bit.ly/1KFkxiq Christ Himself, the most perfect of all, was crucified. We are actually called to be uncomfortable, “death to self” and all that, as we work out our salvation.
*I probably go to a different church than you do. The Orthodox aren’t known for being liberal. But on a theological and individual level, most people are truly loving. The Captain’s suggestion to use names is really important.
I’m Catholic and yes, it is a Thing to have people nodding “yes” along to the sermon….then cutting each other off and flipping them the bird on the way out of the parking lot after Mass. ~Sigh~
I worked for a politician who found the greatest strategy for shutting down the complainers and phonies. Put them on a committee. You can do this at church, too. And toss in some religious guilt for a fun twist. Examples….
“Oh Church Lady! You know, as I was in prayer it occurred to me that you have such a way with making people feel welcome. I think it was God speaking to me to encourage you to be a greeter at our next Lunch. I hope I can count on you!”
“You know, I was chatting with God yesterday and was reminded of the delicious cookies you brought to our last church bake sale. I think it was the Lord’s way of prompting me to ask you to come and help us cook our next Lunch. Won’t you?”
“Church Lady, you have such wonderful organizational skills. Don’t you think God is calling you to help us organize the Church food pantry this Friday? I sure hope you’ll answer the call!
Even if your compliments are exaggerated, Church Lady will either look like a total ass for refusing to help with a mission of your church….or she’ll come and hopefully have her eyes opened as to what the poor are really like.
My hometown Catholic parish has a new priest from Nigeria, and he’s a terrific guy and is energizing the congregation, but there are definitely some small-town sticks-in-the-mud who don’t get it. At the end of Christmas mass, he made a fundraising pitch for a water pump project in HIS hometown. Boy, was my aunt (a classic Christmas-and-Easter church attendee, btw) peeved about that. People have places to go, don’t waste our time for 10 whole minutes by making me think about uncomfortable things like the fact that not everyone can just turn on a faucet like I can!
Haha I have recently joined my local church where the priest is also a Nigerian man who is amazingly warm and compassionate and tireless, and every time we are there he finds a way (even small comments) to remind people that we live in relative luxury compared with many in the world, and to be grateful for what we have and seek to help others whenever we can. The congregation is of many different nationalities and colours, and I have never seen even a hint of side-eyeing among them about each other’s race or income or personal situation. I do believe that is a direct result of his treatment of every single person as a welcome family member. I’ve seen some very judgmental religious groups in my time, so it makes me happy to see that open-heartedness can do amazing things.
I would strongly disagree with putting these Church Ladies in any role that might have them come into direct contact with any of the Lunch attendees. Folx who need free meals unfortunately too often have to receive them from people who they can tell think they are “disgusting” (I hope all those subject/object pronouns didn’t sound too confusing). Please don’t inflict these Church Ladies on them!
Yes. If you’re going to ask them to help, it needs to be in a way that actually will be helping, and not in any way harming the people you want to help! In the end helping those people and treating them with respect is a lot more important than changing the mind or behaviour of your detractors. I’d be trying to shelter your lunch guests from such people, if anything. Even if those ladies manage to keep any openly unpleasant comments to themselves, disdainful attitudes seep through in more subtle ways.
Please, don’t invite this particular kind of Church lady into any safe space! It only hurts the people who need help while giving the bigot plausible deniability: “Oh, I’m not prejudiced, I volunteer in the Church shelter!”
Urgh yes for real. The people who attend these lunches do not deserve to be someone else’s tool for self-improvement. They need lunch and a safe, enjoyable place to eat it.
Someone once thought it was a brilliant idea to put the uneducated on school boards and committees – got them involved! And now we have American standards of eddication. Keeping racists from having power over the people they hate might be unAmerican, but go with it anyway. Confront and shame gently, but don’t try to engage these people. You will not be their epiphany, and given an inch, they will be the end of lunch.
Come on. Racism and classism didn’t come from putting “the uneducated” on school boards and committees.
Uhhh, that’s not why we have such shoddy public education. The Right Wing destroyed public education on purpose in order to have what they have now: a majority of voters who cannot think critically & who can be easily manipulated into voting against their own self-interests.
Yeah, and while school boards were part of the problem, it wasn’t because of “the uneducated,” it was because that same variety of Right Wingers ran for those positions in order to get a foothold in small-town governments. Example 1: Sarah Palin.
From the descriptors the LW used if we are not siblings in Christ in the same denomination, our denoms are close enough for government work. And as a past Senior Warden and current Head Thurifer, I think the above is spot on, however with a few slight changes to the wording.
Changes like, “You know, I think you have a Servant heart, care to share that gift with us at Lunch!Thing next week here’s the signup clipboard and a pen.”
Or, “I really think you have a vocation for outreach, we could use that at Lunch!Thing next week here’s the signup sheet and a pen.”
But, and there is always a but, be prepared for them to still continue to mutter behind their hands. Let it roll off your back like aspergis water from a very enthusiastic deacon, for as Fr. Andrew Greely always wrote, “If G-d had wanted Her Church to be perfect, She would have put it in the hands of the angels instead of us fallible humans.”
I’m highly amused by how you can tell what denomination someone is in by what dialect of church-ese they speak 🙂
I’ve been reading these comments picking out everyone’s denomination. I’m becoming a nun in the incense-and-vestments church the LW belongs to and I immediately went, “My people!!”
Congratulations! I hope it’s really awesome.
What’s even funnier is that I suspect Mary Sue is exactly correct. Words like “thurifer” are a dead giveaway!
I disagree with this advice. I think trying to involve these women in charity work is a great thing, but not with this particular direct-contact initiative. If they’re not comfortable around these clients, they are still going to see them as the “other”.
Also, as an aside, I am constantly surprised by just how much of an ex-evangelical I am, because even reading your quotes made me incredibly uncomfortable!
I just wanted to say that your boyfriend is doing a REALLY GREAT THING there and you’re doing a great job supporting him! I hope you find a good way to deal with Weird Bullshit Lady.
LW–I’m a public librarian, so I deal with a lot of this in my day as well. We’re often dealing with folks on the margins, and those of the community that feel the library is “theirs” . . . well some of them don’t swallow this idea at all well. I think the Captain has some great suggestions. It’s awesome that you’re not abiding by the unkind and rude attitudes that some of these more judgmental folks are voicing. Go you!
Oh, yes. I’m a library worker in a rather posh neighborhood, but our service area includes some neighborhoods of substantially lower incomes. I have my saccharine-sweet reminder that the library is a place for everyone down PAT. I imagine it functions similarly to “bless your heart”.
I believe that research bears out this statement: many well-off people believe that they are well-off because they are smart; that if they had been born to a poor family or in a bad situation, they would have, naturally, with their superior intellects, “boot strapped” themselves straight into the comfortable life they now enjoy. Personally, while I am certainly comfortable, it is my belief that I am simply tremendously lucky, and that I could easily be homeless or in food insecurity if one job or one relationship or one storm of circumstances involving health had been different. This softens my heart considerably toward the homeless, because I don’t see them as different from me, just in different circumstances, having had bad luck, and certainly worthy of respect and support. In my faith community, I have shared my view, nicely and non-confrontationally, and I have seen more than one person soften or change their view. I don’t think people can be scolded or shamed or argued into being better, more compassionate people, but sometimes, they can change themselves if their world is enlarged, and their inputs are altered.
That’s a great point. I wonder if it might help to have sympathetic church members tell their stories of how if x had happened instead of y they would be really grateful for that free lunch. I have to admit I’m totally okay with people being shamed into behaving better, though. If they can’t be kind in their hearts they can at least be polite.
My city has a large population of homeless people, and I occasionally find myself the audience for someone saying something pretty rude about them. One thing I’ve done a couple of times is to say “It’s funny, my mom used to live in this city, years ago, and she was homeless here for a while. Ever since she told me that, I can’t help but feel differently about homeless people.” I say this in a calm, totally non-confrontational way, and I say it with absolutely no shame or awkwardness, as if this story is completely ordinary (because it is).
And I’ve been amazed by the responses I’ve gotten. I’ve only done this a couple of times so far, but the looks on people’s faces when I say it like that, with no shame and no anger, just an ordinary fact of life, something that could happen to anyone…it really has made a couple of people think twice about what they’ve said.
I think what does it is that I make it so clear through my tone of voice that I don’t think there’s anything shameful about this story. And also, my mother no longer is homeless, and later ended up raising an obviously really well-cared-for child, and that challenges the assumptions people make, I think: the assumption that a person who’s homeless is irredeemable; that they became homeless because they screwed up and are continuing to screw up, otherwise they’d stop being homeless; that their homelessness is a symptom of the larger, incurable problem of them being a screw-up; that nothing can be done to help Those People in a lasting way because they just don’t know how to take care of themselves. My mother clearly does not fit into that category, and yet she was homeless. That shows people that it’s more complicated than they thought.
I don’t know if your mother was ever homeless, LW, but you’re welcome to tell the pearl-clutchers about mine if you want. Or, is there some other person you know whom you could refer to, not necessarily by name if that’s outside of their comfort zone, in much the same way as how I refer to my mother? Ideally this would be someone who has earned some kind of success token which will be shiny and impressive: they do some kind of professional work now, they got a college degree, they published something which sold well, etc. It sucks that you have to resort to that, but it really seems to help to have something people can’t dismiss, something they truly don’t see as fitting in with the story of a Homeless Person, to jerk them out of their assumptions and make them question the categories they’ve been putting people in. (I don’t point mine out, but it speaks volumes and is definitely in the room during these conversations — I seem very educated and well-adjusted, and it’s clear that someone took care of me.)
Good luck. I’m not religious, but I really admire the work you’re doing.
(I have no idea how that ended up as a nested reply. I tried to post it as a general reply, and it was meant for the LW. Sorry!)
:fistbump: Having parents who were homeless at some point.
My Dad was very depressed and wandering around South America then Florida in the nineties. He got out of it bc a friend gave him money to get back to his hometown, and he was able to move in with extended family. Definitely made me look at homeless ppl, especially travelers, differently.
Ps. Y’all know hobo is short for “homeward bound,” right? It was funny to find out a word used pejoratively has such a humane meaning.
Thanks for answering my question, Captain. It means a lot to me. “Out-church lady the church ladies” strikes a chord with me. It’s good to keep in mind that, best case scenario, I turn into one of them myself someday (minus the racism/classism, obvs.) and I need to be an active participant in setting the tone NOW, not later. It’s easy to get into an Imposter Syndrome mindset, since we are young, unmarried, childless, and not in the same professional sphere as a lot of the people around us (the woman who made the comment at the street festival is a PhD). But I know that’s my bullshit to sort out, not anybody else’s, and it shouldn’t keep me from being too intimidated to cut someone dead when they deserve it.
For anyone reading the comments, I’d like to emphasize that Boyfriend’s ministry is EXTREMELY supported by our priest and our bishop, and throughout the diocese and our city. Its value has been preached from the pulpit a number of times, especially during the holidays, and we’re lucky in that different area churches and organizations (everything from the Masons to a local restaurant owner) frequently “sponsor” the lunches and takes care of the nitty-gritty for that week. So we can see that people are positive and happy, but there’s just this pernicious undercurrent. Maybe I’m paranoid and looking for problems that don’t actually exist, but having grown up in a small church, I’ve seen snide talk balloon out of control before.
And to everyone saying I’m amazing… thanks. I don’t do much besides offer emotional support and occasionally eat a free lunch. And occasionally wish I could bust some heads.
My husband has been a youth pastor for twenty years and let me tell you . . . if I had a dollar for all the heads I’ve wanted to bust over those years, my tithes would have been a lot bigger! You and Boyfriend really are doing amazing work, and I am sending you all the virtual support in the world.
I read your comment quickly and thought it said ‘my titties would have been a lot bigger!’ and was like, um … that’s a strange non-sequitur. Had to go back and read it again! 😀
Well, I could have at least afforded to pay for new ones if I had all those dollars . . .
Don’t discount the emotional support. People who do Big Great Things don’t do it alone. The work of Supportive PartnerTM is *work* that requires a lot of empathy and caregiving skills. Just because this work is often unsung doesn’t mean it’s not important.
I, too, was reading your original letter and thinking Episcopalian thoughts.
It’s fantastic that there’s so much support for Boyfriend’s ministry! It still might be worth talking to your priest about specifically preaching about the negativity — either in a vague way, or very explicitly. I can imagine our rector telling the story of the “it’s disgusting” woman so clearly that I can hear the cadence of his voice. We’re heading into our annual forty days of repentance and introspection, which sounds like a good time for it.
If you look through some of Bishop Curry’s statements — either written or video — you should be able to pick out some choice lines that the other Church Ladies might recognize. The call to take the church into the streets, from shortly after his installation as Presiding Bishop, might be a good one, and his responses to the actions of the Anglican Primates have partly focused on how badly people can be hurt when the church turns its back on them, and on the responsibility not to do that. Even if they don’t recognize particular lines or phrases (or paragraphs; Bishop Curry is an amazing preacher but doesn’t really do “brief”), there’s still some rhetorical weight there.
I wonder if there’s a bit of jealousy from the Church ladies then. It often surprises me how often adults still try to impress “teacher” in the same tactics as they did as teenagers. I went on a tour with a pretty bad tour guide once and by the end of the week there was a massive rift in the group because these different groups were trying to impress and flatter him partly by bad mouthing each other.
Man do I know this attitude well: I went to college for the ministry, and that is where I met my husband, also for the ministry. We got married, and took an (unpaid) position in a little non-denominational (but conservative Pentecostal) church where we were charged with leading (and growing) the youth group. We really did wonderfully for a while, kids who had never been to church were coming to the youth group, and they seemed to be getting some good things out of the group.
Well, bringing in “unchurched” kids was our big, big mistake. Parents started getting up in arms because the kids were smoking outside the church and we didn’t stop them (why would we? You shouldn’t have to “clean up” before coming to Christ, Christ is supposed to help you with that). The final straw, after SO MANY STRAWS, SO MANY YOU DO NOT EVEN KNOW is that parents and NON parents alike started lining up outside the pastor’s office on BRING A FRIEND SUNDAY to complain about us. They did not carry torches and pitchforks but it wouldn’t have looked out of place.
Secretly the pastor agreed with my husband and I…but in front of the protesting church members, threw us under the bus. By that time, those “unchurched” kids had been made to feel so unwelcome, they’d all left that I wouldn’t blame them if they never darkened the door of a church again.
Did I mention that we were poor as the proverbial church mice and working several jobs between the two of us and NOT GETTING PAID? We quit after a year, and made a half-hearted attempt at finding other ministry jobs over the years. But the attitude was the same with “little old ladies” in every church we went to. The only thing you can really do is keep on keeping on, discuss and get support from the pastor. If he isn’t on board with you, it’s time to find some other sponsor for your outreach efforts.)
(Now we’re Wiccan and MUCH happier. I am not saying that those people pushed us out of the church, we just realized that Christianity no longer resonated with us, if it ever did in the first place.)
I was brought up attending church three or more times a week, plus youth group, plus witnessing, plus blah blah blah.
I have not set foot in a church in the denomination in which I was raised in over a decade, for reasons very similar to the ones you mention here. I won’t get into all the details, except the pastor handled a similar situation very poorly. I never went back. He made an attempt to reach out to me with a letter a few weeks later when he realized I wasn’t coming back, which I returned unopened. I ran into him in a grocery store about a year later and turned around and walked away without a word when he tried to speak to me.
I had grown really disillusioned with the rampant hypocrisy, racism, sexism, and misogyny that I saw being preached in this particular branch of Christianity, but I thought it was kind of ironic that the final thing that made me turn away from church entirely happened in one those “progressive” churches where the pastor wears jeans and you call him by his first name.
Oooh, the cut direct. Hopefully that got through to him the magnitude of what he’d done wrong.
It sounds like my religious upbringing was quite similar to yours! I too have not visited a church of that denomination since, oh, probably 2008? And really no Protestant denominations in a couple years – I used to go with my mother for her sake (in addition to attending Mass – I called Sundays “running the gauntlet”), but stopped when she started throwing tantrums when I did not take the communion that I was no longer entitled to take.
I hated the administration of the church/school I attended in high school SO much that I have also cut-direct with them. Hypocrites all.
I’m an ex-evangelical (we weren’t too far off from Pentacostal), and I can just see this happening. “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and all that.
I’m not surprised that the people at your former church were concerned about their children meeting non-Christians. They isolate their kids so they won’t know that other people have different beliefs and can be decent human beings. I had some church friends who were homeschooled and only socialized with other evangelical kids. Meeting a teenage boy who was only allowed to watch religious stuff and “Land of the Lost” was definitely … something. (Oh, and, in case you’re curious, the “Land of the Lost” thing was because it disproved evolution).
I honestly didn’t realize until college that people truly believed in God. I just thought everyone was going through the motions, like I was, because Hell. That was a super awkward conversation when my boyfriend at the time patiently explained that he actually believed in his church. Even transubstantiation.
With the ‘bring a friend sunday’ thing it sounds like the kids were already friends outside of church and the adults were the ones who had the problem with the kids being around, for their sakes not even their kids’. I grew up in an American-style evangelical church in the UK and here we don’t really have isolationist Christian homeschooling (or if we do, it’s much more unusual-apart from anything else, as a small country it’s hard for anywhere to be all that isolated geographically), and this is exactly the sort of thing I could have seen happening in that church. The kids all went to normal schools and had various ‘un-churched’ friends that the youth leaders would encourage them to bring them to church, but I know there was a certain subset of middle class adults (not even elderly in this case, middle-aged up) who would have had a problem with little things like young people smoking and being in groups outside. I think, even if they don’t realise it, they see church as a place to escape from scary ‘worldly’ things like that, somewhere to connect with ‘their type’, even though the religion they are practising has a great emphasis on mixing with different types of people and not judging them, and showing love and acceptance towards them. This went right up to the pastor and his wife, who were middle class and also posh in that kind of being oblivious to other people’s discomfort way.
I have a different observation – your bf is called to minister to the hungry and homeless, while You are being called by God to minister to these people in your congregation…? By getting all Judgy and Self-righteous, you’re losing the compassiin that Jesus brought to everybsituation, including when he confronted the comfortable and well-fed. Just a thought: challenge ourselves with compassion, listening, service and healing, in every situation.
What specifically does that look like when you hear someone say another church member is “disgusting?” What would you say to these folks?
I’ve been thinking about this and personally I think the difference it makes is not so much in the words you say as in the tone they come out in. The same gentle politely worded disagreement tends to come out just sounding snarky or insulting if the only feeling in your heart is disgust towards the person you’re talking with. If you can cultivate some pity that their life hasn’t given the opportunity to learn more empathy, or some compassion for how stressful they may find change, then I think you’ve got a better chance of saying what needs to be said firmly but more kindly.
And they may not even notice the difference (though they might if you’re lucky), but even if they don’t it will be better for you and your own feelings if you can be disgusted with the words without letting it turn into being disgusted by the person saying them, which is always a risk when people say disgusting things.
Yeah, I think if you are feeling disgust it’s better to avoid gentle words loaded with snark. There’s nothing wrong with being angry when you hear someone call a marginalized person disgusting. In that case, I think genuine emotion is better than trying to cloak your anger in words that will ring hollow. I’d rather go honest and blunt without snark.
“To hear you say that makes me feel angry, because that person is also God’s child.”
“Please don’t speak like that in front of me. We are all God’s children.”
It’s really hard to be compassionate toward rich assholes. Jesus wasn’t always; in the face of injustice he could be very angry. I don’t know how that squares with not feeling disgust toward any person, but if you have to pick a side, pick the side of compassion toward the poor and hungry, not toward the church ladies.
Thanks, this is a super-helpful comment.
“To hear you say that makes me feel angry, because that person is also God’s child.”
“Please don’t speak like that in front of me. We are all God’s children.”
Yeah, I like those.
“Jesus wasn’t always; in the face of injustice he could be very angry.” That reminds me of this meme that went around a few years ago:
I think at the end of the day it comes down to: when you lay it out for them that their actions and words are not okay, are you trying to get them to listen, understand, and change their hearts and actions for the better, or are you trying to get them so angry they finally go entirely and publically beyond the pale so you can feel justified when you stop caring what they think?
LW seems to me to be firmly in the first camp, however frustratedly right now, and if they keep that in the forefront, they’re probably going to get it right or mostly right.
I agree btw that this is primarily a priest-sized problem. Especially as I get the impression they know better than to say this crap in front of the priest(s), else it sounds like there would have been some action already.
This is not to say that LE shouldn’t step up, only to say that they shouldn’t do it alone.
And hello from yet another Anglican, LW!
So, should one not stop a rich person from attacking a poor person, for fear of offending the rich person?
As B implies, I think it’s exactly the opposite. We should be doing what we can to protect the poor person from the rich person. Part of that is calling out the rich person when they’re being unloving towards the poor, not letting them get away with it. “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable [whose comfort is based in the privilege to ignore the suffering of others]” comes to mind here.
As HeatherY points out, we can still be compassionate towards the privileged. Changing your attitude toward a whole group of people can be difficult. But compassion is not the same as appeasement. In this situation, it sounds like a lot of people in the church are getting away with looking down on their neighbors, and the first priority is to point out that what they’re doing is not ok. Hopefully in such a way that the lunch guests see that those kinds of comments are not tolerated without pushback.
As for what to say to them, I’d keep it simple and direct in the moment. “Jesus doesn’t find our guests disgusting.” Longer-term, there are a lot of things you could do towards educating the congregation and inviting transformation into a group that stands with the oppressed. You may or may not want to take that on, but it really is a ministry in and of itself. I’m glad you’ve got the support of the priest on this one.
I completely agree with you. Honestly, if that’s the attitude of the LW and her BF, I doubt the ministry will survive.
@Elaine May, could you expand on that? Which attitude of the LW and her BF are you referring to? The idea that poor people are *not* disgusting? The idea that it’s inappropriate for church ladies to call poor people disgusting? I think I may be confused about the antecedents of your comment; clarification would be greatly appreciated! 🙂
It says here that Jesus did not only have kind words for people acting inappropriately: https://carm.org/jesus-say-mean-things
By my reckoning, Jesus wasn’t exactly compassionate with the Pharisees when they needed to be taken down a peg. Often he got downright sassy with them. It isn’t “Judgy” or “Self-Righteous” to recognize attitudes that are hateful and unChristian and take measures to correct them.
“Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Matthew 9:10-13
Yeah, no. Pretty much every single instance of Jesus getting ANGRY in the bible was in relation to him confronting the comfortable and well-fed being jerks to the needy.
Or to paraphrase that lovely meme: When pondering What Would Jesus Do, remember that flipping tables and chasing people with a whip is an option.
Sorry, but Yeah, Yeah. There are people who are hopeless racists and classists and like another writer said, they are the “dinosaurs on their way out.” (we can hope) But I have direct experience with this and for what it’s worth, I think there are genuinely good people in churches who can be guided to a different way of looking at things. The “old guard” at my church are used to viewing church as a place to Worship God – and so it’s a nice place (to respect God’s House) and you get dressed up (to show respect for God and God’s House) and you give as much money as you can (for God’s work). etc. etc. That’s what they’re used to – but a lot of them can see a different way when it’s explained to them in a non-confrontive way. In my experience, it’s harder to work with this situation than with the homeless – because somehow the conflict hits closer to home and there’s not an obvious distinction between you and the person – as there often is with the “I’m the Good Person Helping You, the Needy Person” lunch scenario.
My church started inviting the homeless to our ongoing Tuesday Night Soup Supper Service – and it’s been a huge success: for the homeless. Unfortunately there wasn’t any thought given to helping the regular attendees adjust to the new people and I’m sure the new attendees (homeless) felt the “old guard” was avoiding them – I’m sure they were! It would have made a world of difference if there had been a sermon or a workshop or a casserole pot-luck where people got the tiniest bit of training – role playing on what to/not to ask them, how to be welcoming, etc. The saddest part was a couple of our older (80-90 yr old) ladies were frail and tiny (4’5″ or so) and a couple of the larger homeless guys were socially a bit out-of-control – so these dear-hearted gals were feeling physically unsafe and stopped coming. It could have been such a community-building event, with scads of all-kinds-of-church-people mixing with and learning to love our homeless people; instead, now it’s 90% homeless and 10% those big-hearted churchgoers who are “Helping the Homeless.”
Yeah, there’s often a big middle ground between people who are just not very nice people, and people who have concerns and fears and stresses of their own that are making it hard for them to see the greater good.
Maybe they feel like their contributions are no longer valued, maybe they are scared of what to say if they bump into someone they don’t know how to interact with, maybe they see ‘their’ church as a beautiful refuge from the world outside that helps them refresh and go back home ready to cope with the world and are scared of losing that refuge if it changes too much.
None of those reasons make it OK to say mean things about people who need help or to try to keep them from being helped, but they do sometimes explain where things may be coming from.
And, if your goal in confronting someone when they say something unkind is to improve the situation, it helps to think practically about what will help change their attitude or behaviour. Shutting them down may feel right in the moment, but if they still feel the same way plus now they feel really angry at you because they feel like you were rude, then you may not have improved the situation.
So confront them, yes, but try to think about how best to do so so you’re improving the situation and not escalating a personal conflict.
I think in your scenario, though, there would be a good middle ground to speak to the “socially out of control” men and other newcomers about expected behavior, too. I don’t know what you mean by “socially out of control”, but I’m a 32-year-old healthy woman and I wouldn’t feel safe in that environment, either. And I regularly work with the homeless through my job.
We do legal clinics with indigent seniors, as well as the homeless, and we always give participants a rundown on what to expect, how to behave, basic etiquette, etc. However, the nonprofits setting these up also does the same with the clients. It helps build the relationship and get everything off on the right foot.
Jesus was actually pretty self-righteous. And he definitely felt qualified to judge and comment on people’s behavior – apart from the passion and various miracles, that was his major Biblical activity, telling people that they were being jerks and should probably stop.
Yes, but that’s Jesus – not even a pastor would survive acting like that. Let alone a parishioner…
So people should act like Jesus, unless acting like Jesus means actually confronting privileged jerks on their behavior?
Maybe you’re being snarky for its own sake or whatever, but in case you’re serious, I’ll point out that you’re citing one situation only, out of the dozen or so we have of Jesus’s behavior. In all the other situations, he is compassionate and caring, meeting people where they are in their faith journey. Those tables he overturned were at the temple, the holy place – and if I wanted to (I do not), I could make the case that his outrage was over the defacement of the holy temple with the “dirty activity” of money-lending. Again, I do not make this case – but some others have – that Jesus’ point was to keep the temple “holy” and “clean”. And some church people – definitely not me – could interpret that as keeping the church for worship and not for feeding the homeless. SO, it would be great if you’d let go of the one single point and see my larger meaning… which I did expand on in another recent post. If you’re not so inclined? Well, Blessings Be…
Personally, I’m not big on demanding that people be polite and friendly in pointing out bigotry. Certainly it’s an /option/, but it is not in any way a requirement.
Fine – everyone can miss my point completely and just keep re-stating your own. Glad to help you feel all Judgy and Self-Righteous. Peace Out.
callmeIndigo: are you “big on” getting results and having positive experiences going forward? The LW and her partner are part of this church, and these people are part of their community. They are much more likely to get these people on their side and have a good experience in their church going forward if they can correct them with gentleness.
You do seem kind of big on interpreting suggestions as “demands”, which is kind of weird tbh.
Fair point. I think this is interacting with some weird issues of mine and so I’ll clear out of the comments on this post.
I don’t belong to any faith or religion any more, but I was raised in one, and I seem to remember someone somewhere saying something about departing, lake of fire, because cursed, because not feeding, clothing or welcoming…oh well. Probably wasn’t anyone very important.
How, exactly, do you think it is compassionate and kind and leading people to see things differently by calling the LW “judgy and self-righteous”?
Well, online is different. Jesus may have flipped a table, but he never sent anyone a poop emoji, right?
Pretty sure Matthew 5:22 would have covered poop emoji.
Possibly, although I think there are arguments to be made each way. Regardless, Matthew 5:22 would merely mandate that a sender of poop emoji would be referred to the council of the synagogue for judgement, as it’s more like saying “Hraka!” than calling someone mwros. 🙂
I dunno, “in danger of the fire” seems pretty unpleasant. And I think regardless of which category poop emoji would fall under, Jesus was pretty clear that name-calling was Not Okay.
As I said, I think a poop emoji is more like saying Hraka! to someone than calling them mwros, in which case they’d just be in danger of going before the council of the synagogue. “In danger of the fire of Gehenna”, id est the afterlife, is reserved for people who call their neighbour mwros.
LW, let me recommend a book for your boyfriend (and you), specifically designed for leaders facing church issues like this: “Leaders who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry,” by Margaret Marcuson. Full disclosure: I’m well-acquainted with the author, but I really believe it’s an awesome resource for asserting yourself, your views, and your desire for change in the face of stodgy we’ve-always-done-it-this-way church politics. It talks a lot about how a) you can’t *make* people change their ways, and trying to can lead to burnout really quickly, but b) this doesn’t mean you can’t productively state your reasons for heading in your direction and hopefully leave people feeling like following in that direction is a good idea. Also, in a church environment, there are a lot of weird combinatory social dynamics (are the church ladies people’s moms? people’s grandmas? how long have they been members of this church?) that can lead to awkwardness and difficulties, and the book does a great job of addressing that and helping you work with your own way of leadership/social interaction with respect to all of it. It also focuses on thinking long-term–this is not a problem that can be solved once and then it goes away, even if you change churches someday. Lots of young ministers burn out *fast*, and it is so important to guard against that. So I strongly recommend checking it out!
And, book aside, the captain’s advice is excellent as always. Good luck!
I’m almost positive your bf has read “take this bread” by Sara Miles, and has been inspired by it. But if not, both of you should read it: Bf seems on the very same trajectory, and it has some parts about exactly your question and how the author handled it.
I’d also just emphasize the “out-church the church-folk” approach: remember that the church is God’s and no-one else’s, and your BF is doing exactly what God commands.
I was part of a UK church movement to reinvigorate the Anglican church and the vicar did really amazing, inclusive and accessible work. We’d have a mini work party after chutch to help clear up wasteland and derelict gardens and encourage anyone to join in, we supplied good food and talked about non church things. In a very poor district where our neighbours were poor, seeking asylum, Muslim, non English speaking and the targets of hate crime, it was a neutral way to get people together. And people came out to join in even if they didn’t come to the service because we had that wish to have nice gardens and litter free streets. Friendships were forged.
I mention it because the vicar was an affable, warm, down to earth guy in a goofy hat who would greet everyone with sincerity and who never made a big deal about someone’s life circumstances. His ability to bring a swahili version of a worship sing or invite someone to bake bread to use for communion like it was the most normal and lovely thing in the world; it really did challenge those who clung to their prejudices without being combative. I remember how that light friendly enthusiasm won people over.
He could do the social justice thing too, but even that was with love and humour, even if that meant protesting. His attitude of ‘well of course we’ll have a samba drummming night and invite the local people!’ was hard to argue with.
You are doing good things with a humble spirit and don’t underestimate that there are others who will appreciate the change you embody. People need to see it to be it, so don’t forget those who may be quietly relieved to see you out there. Someone had to be the first and weather the pearl clutching.
My experiences of community building tends to centre upon sharing big meals (everyone has to eat) and creating something (renovating a room, making a film, setting up a service for local people to take ownership of) that sort of generous Co production. And in NT scriptures, the early church did a lot of that. Food and fixing, you are both onto something good.
Onward Christian Shoulders and all that 🙂
This isn’t in Leeds, is it? Describes our church exactly, including the Swahili!
It was around that area but not central Leeds.
Ouch, LW, my condolences for having to deal with that bullshit. I’ve also organised church events and worked alongside that particular kind of assholes (cute old ladies can be assholes too, ‘specially if they’re choosing to demean their fellow human beings instead of helping them) and I can. Not. Stand it. I’m a young unmarried woman and thus at the bottom of the power chain, too, but even then I don’t like to let those things slide. What I do is saying “Excuse me, what did you just say? I couldn’t hear you” or “Excuse me, care to repeat that? I’m afraid I wasn’t paying attention” with a big, great, just a bit menacing smile on my face and that tone that means “You just made a fool of yourself, but I’m gonna give you a chance to cover your ass”. 90% take the chance to save face, the other 10% are irredeemable assholes better sidesteped with a quote of the Gospel (something along the lines of “Love thy brethen” or “Feed and clothe the poor”) and avoided for the rest of the evening.
I think the Captain has great advice except for one point: outdoing Church ladies. I’ve seen how that goes down. The people who go to a church-org to cover their basic needs Don’t need a self-appointed moral guardian/gatekeeper who has power over them while being unwilling to treat them with respect and empathy. Don’t invite bigoted assholes into what should be a safe space, please!
Good luck, LW, and thank you and your boyfriend for the important work you do 🙂
I totally agree and totally believe you, LW, and etc. I do wonder if you are hearing about these terrible remarks from one person? If you’re getting a lot of second hand “Well, Suzie just can’t believe all these trashy people are showing up.” but Suzie herself has not said these things to you, maybe there’s someone with an agenda but it’s not Suzie. Just a thought.
A good thought, but no, unfortunately. Would be nice if all of this could be basically traced back to one shit-stirrer, but no such luck. There’s definitely a ringleader, but surprisingly, she’s actually had the chutzpah to say a lot of stuff directly to Boyfriend’s face, so we’re not hearing much about her through the grapevine.
Lovely work, LW, and lovely answer, Captain. I volunteer regularly in a food pantry and I am sometimes amazed at the things my fellow volunteers say about the people who come for food. It’s often the flip side of what you’re describing (there is some consensus that a lot of people do not look “poor enough” because of how they dress or their possession of 4-year-old smart phones), but comes–I think–from the same judgmental place about how poor people “should” be and where they “should” be “allowed” to go. I’m going to take the Captain’s advice and not be silent when I hear these comments anymore.
Thanks for the push, LW & Captain!
Actually when you think about it, a smartphone is an amazingly good investment for someone of extremely limited means. It gives you a phone number you can be reached at regardless of your location or housing situation, and access to email and internet so you can apply for jobs and/or investigate services that may be available to you. It gives you maps so you can find places you’re not sure where are. It allows you to keep in touch with friends, loved ones, service providers, and jobs. You do not need a fixed address or even a home with electricity to use it, as you can charge it in many public places. You can call 911 on it if you are hurt or injured and can’t move around.
Smartphones are amazing. Possibly we should hand them out.
The other thing about smartphones is that they have been around long enough that there are a lot of hand me downs around. And if you have wifi, they are cheap to run.
Heck, I myself have three old smartphones rolling around my apartment — my SO is using one and I’ve got two in a drawer. Plus a fourth one with a broken SIM tray that still works on wifi.
…yes, I have a problem.
My children use our 3-4 year old hand-me-down smartphones as game devices, and use our wIfi to watch their shows on them.
It’s not really a status symbol anymore when you can pick one up secondhand for 50 bucks. It’s just a useful and increasingly necessary tool.
Agreed! It’s almost like people in tight situations have some insight into how best to allocate their resources. 🙂
I think smartphones have long since gone from “luxury item” to “necessity in today’s modern world”. Anyone who disparages the poor for having a good cell phone (or sometimes one at all) needs to pull their head out of their ass, and realize that their attitude that the poor shouldn’t have ‘nice things’ is a huge stinking pile of pollalloo.
Good phones don’t even cost an arm & a leg anymore. My husband and I both got brand new, (not refurbished) iPhones for next to nothing (I think his was $50 + full price sales tax, mine was free + full price sales tax) because we waited for upgrade offers from his service provider, who does them *all the time*.
Hubby works in a warehouse, I am disabled without an income, and we aren’t exactly rolling in dough, yet both have really nice phones that have proven so useful they are worth their weight in gold to us.
Reaction to unemployed poor person in cheap clothes:
Ugh! So trashy! They’ll never get a job looking like that. Have some pride in yourself
Reaction to employed poor person in nice second-hand work clothes:
Welfare cheats using my tax dollars to buy designer labels!
This despite the fact that you can’t even apply for services here unless you are working, on unemployment and actively seeking a job, or on disability.
And so what? What if 10% of the people served could scrape by without that extra help? How does it help to penalize the other 90%?
If a person can live with 10-20% of prisoners being innocent as the price we pay for keeping dangerous people out of the general population, they can accept a certain amount of fraud as the price paid for reaching the most vulnerable populations who don’t have the resources to keep themselves functionally and ‘acceptably’ poor.
At one point I found myself in an argument with someone who insisted that it was “stupid” of lower-income people to eat at McDonald’s, because you can go to the grocery store and get plenty of healthy food for the same amount of money – yes, even if you are working multiple jobs and have no time to cook and no real kitchen facilities! Because you can just buy single-serving packaged food!
I tried to explain that actually, a diet of granola bars, raw fruit, and single-serve yogurt cups isn’t nutritionally sustainable either. But ultimately, I just lost it because it shouldn’t matter if you could reasonably survive that way – no one should have to. It’s stripping someone of their fundamental human dignity to claim that in order to be “virtuous”, they have to give up something as basic as being able to eat a satisfying meal while, for fuck’s sake, sitting at a table instead of in their car.
Parents are the worst about this.
One of the other moms was ripping into a single mom for taking her kids to eat fast food and play in the play place twice a week on the days she works late. Because “Costco takes WIC and she could crockpot something healthy” (she and one of the children are overweight).
Because when she’s putting in a 12 hour day at two jobs, she definitely wants to get up an hour early to prep a meal. And at the end of that 12 hour day, she wants to yell at them for pushing that healthy meal around their plate instead of letting them have some fun while she recharges enough to do homework and bedtime routine.
And she’ll blow half of their food budget on three months worth of quinoa and whole wheat pasta, then store it in the middle of the living room of their tiny apartment, because buying in bulk is the best way to save money.
And she absolutely won’t have the temerity to look attractive and professional (because poor AND fat AND unmarried can’t be getting above themselves) so she can advance in her career and only have to work one job.
Ugh! Ugh! UGH!
This is odd to me. Why are you asking Captain Awkward?
Your boyfriend is running a Christian ministry in a church that you say is supported by the Pastor and wider community. This is an issue of church unity and community. Why is your first instinct re this conflict not to bring it to the church leadership (as is actually biblically commanded)?
“Out-churching people” (i.e. being publicly passive aggressive) will win enemies before anything else and in the long run ruins churches. They will push back by doing the same. People will take sides publicly and the culture of your church will become toxic. Following CA’s strategy is leading you into a 100 years war that you probably won’t win. Trust me. I have seen SO MANY church fights go down like this. You will burn out and leave and they will still be there wondering why the church has stopped growing. Also, maybe I’m missing something but how is sarcasm and rudeness supposed to be Christian/godlike behavior?
But honestly, I’m shocked. Why do you not go straight to your pastor and explain what is going on and then take his lead?
Frankly, I get the impression you think you are better than them (maybe including the pastor?). Fine, maybe you are. But you are not the church leadership. See, by attending your church, people have implicitly agreed that they accept the spiritual authority, doctrine and interpretation of the leadership of that church. They haven’t agreed to follow you. And you can’t control the culture of the church by yourself and you actually don’t have ANY RIGHT to publicly chastise anyone. You think you can drive people out, shut them up or shame them but it won’t work! The church leadership should be tackling this, not you. Even if your boyfriend runs the program, this doesn’t displace that responsibility. GO TO YOUR PASTOR.
The only people I’ve seen fight dirtier than Christians are academics because the temptation to get self-righteous is overwhelming. From a Pastor’s daughter to a possible future Pastor’s wife, DO NOT TAKE CA’S ADVICE.
‘See, by attending your church, people have implicitly agreed that they accept the spiritual authority, doctrine and interpretation of the leadership of that church. ‘
This really varies from church to church. In some communities it’s expected to be more bottom-up, with the entire community expressing their beliefs and the clergy being the chosen representatives of the community to take a front-line role in implementing it, but cautioned to remain humble and never put themselves above others. Others are very top-down, with a clear ‘leader-follower’ structure. Others yet are in between or something else entirely.
I do agree though on the point that reaching out to others in the community, including the lay leadership and/or clergy leadership, should hopefully feel like a natural thing to do.
Word. I thoroughly disagree with my pastor on all sorts of doctrine – but I still think he’s a worthwhile guy with lots to offer, so I’m happy to keep going to his church. My attendance should not be taken to mean that I agree with his every utterance.
FWIW, personally I’d never attend a church where I got the impression the priest thought he or she was above me in some way simply by virtue of following their calling. This is my own personal belief and I’m fortunate to know many priests who have never made me feel like they thought their orders put them above anyone else.
Whoa up, there, not all churches have the same ideas of “spiritual authority” or what’s “biblically commanded” at all. What you’re saying may or may not be true for LW, and she’s the one in the best position to know what kind of relationship to the priest/church leadership her church expects members to have.
… and also to know what the unofficial power structure of her church is. Certainly in my own childhood Episcopal church (I’m now Unitarian), this kind of problem would have been best solved by appealing, not just to the priest, but to the Old Ladies Who Ran Everything (altar guild, church dinners, charity fundraising, etc.) — getting them on the LW’s side would have meant having socially powerful allies in shutting down unkind and/or prejudiced conversations.
I wonder if those of us who are reacting the most viscerally to the notion of top-down spiritual authority are disproportionately UU. (My Gravatar is a picture of Singing the Living Tradition, so I’m rather wearing it on my sleeve.)
Some of us are Anabaptist. And have seen some shit in those top-down churches.
Roman Catholic representative present and accounted for. Because of the rigid structures I’ve encountered, I intensely dislike the concept of “your role as a woman is to sit prettily and obey the men”.
B—I feel like St Mary Magdalene, St Nina of Georgia, St Phoebe, and St Junia would have a similar problem with it. Just to name a few.
Brigid: Thank you, that’s good to keep in mind 🙂
Absolutely. From a (Roman) Catholic perspective, the pastor (and associate pastor) come and go, but the Old Ladies Who Run Everything are always there – and this tends to be true for any church with vestments, incense, and weekly-at-a-minimum Communion. To the extent that we Catholics buy into “attendance is implicit acceptance of authority”, it’s “implicit acceptance of the Pope’s authority”.
(The exception is churches with married pastors, where if the pastor’s wife is a woman she may be a better person to appeal to, or at least to find out how best to work with the OLWRE.)
In addition to TO_Ont’s very pertinent and accurate comments, I think it’s worth noting that the “spiritual authority, doctrine, and interpretation of the leadership of that church” are solidly behind the LW, here. As she herself says, ” I’d like to emphasize that Boyfriend’s ministry is EXTREMELY supported by our priest and our bishop, and throughout the diocese and our city. Its value has been preached from the pulpit a number of times, especially during the holidays,” etc. The church members who are vocally disparaging the program and its participants are acting counter to the doctrine preached *very explicitly* in their church, and frankly haven’t a leg to stand on.
I’m also not especially impressed by claims to authority for its own sake, especially when the effect is to avoid extending compassion on the grounds that it’s simply not one’s personal place. The way this story goes, I’d rather be the Samaritan than the Levite, and I suspect the LW feels likewise.
‘See, by attending your church, people have implicitly agreed that they accept the spiritual authority, doctrine and interpretation of the leadership of that church. ‘
That is not how most (the overwhelming majority, iirc) of Protestant churches work.
Unfortunately, I think it is normal in certain strains of fundamentalism that cut wide geographical swathes across the U.S. The church I was raised in (which has sister churches all over my county) did not encourage independent thought and did not believe conclusions reached outside the doctrine of the church were valid.
I am not in that church anymore, surprise!
Oh, I recognize it, but I grew up in a fundamentalist Seventh-Day/Messianic Judaic Christian cult. 😀
No. Just no. You are talking about a very specific kind of church, in a very specific kind of milieu. Please don’t assume your experiences are universal. Not everyone joins a church because they want to be under the spiritual authority and interpretation of the leadership. That assumption makes me angry.
Also, if we are talking about modeling Christian charity, you should not assume that the LW thinks she is better than everyone else.
Wow, your comment’s tone REALLY rubbed me the wrong way. Where in LW’s letter did you somehow get that they think they are better than them? She was upset that people she liked have very racist/classist views that apparently are so pervasive that they are threatening her boyfriend’s ministry, which is actually living out Christ’s mission to help the poor. Also, the church’s culture is ALREADY toxic if multiple members hold these kinds of views. The LW cannot cause this toxicity because it is already there trying to shut down her and her boyfriend’s attempts to actually follow Christ’s teachings.
You’re blaming the LW for sarcasm, rudeness, and public chastisement – all things she ACTUALLY HAS NOT DONE, but these little old church ladies have. I don’t see you condemning them, even though they profess to be Christian when their actions are clearly not (which Jesus talked a lot about in the Gospels). Apparently Jesus didn’t give a crap calling out the Pharisees on their bullshit. Jesus used public chastisement ALL THE DAMN TIME to make a point about his teachings and the hypocrisy of spiritual authorities like the Pharisees. Jesus was pretty damn good at sass and publicly throwing shade. So was God in the Old Testament – I think the Pharaoh would have thought God was being rude when he sent the plagues.
You sound like one of those ladies themselves, clutching their pearls because they didn’t do things “the proper way.” Maybe because you’ve always been close to that authority and you like it because it makes YOU feel spiritually superior to others? Or maybe you’re smug because YOU, OF COURSE, know the RIGHT way things like this situation should be handled. Because THAT is your tone connotes to me.
And quite frankly, going to authority DOES NOT WORK a lot of the time. I can’t believe you’re SHOCKED (*clutches pearls*) that she didn’t go directly to her pastor. Why? Why are you SHOCKED that maybe some people don’t automatically go to the authorities despite ALL of the news that doing just that may not be the best thing for people? Like the black women who were assaulted and raped by that white cop who got 263 years (a miracle in and of itself)? You’re going to blame them for not going to the police earlier to report the crime…committed by a police officer? Or all the women Bill Cosby assaulted and raped? Because going to the authorities back when the assaults or rapes happened really helped them out, right?
You’re placing a lot of trust in pastors or priests that they will do the right thing and actually make decisions according to the tenets of their faith. I guess molesting children, harassing women, having affairs, fraud, and all that other bad stuff I keep seeing in the news from priests and other spiritual leaders really instills confidence in your plan. I’m glad it seems like the LW’s pastor is a good egg, but your directions are far from being universally effective or applicable.
Man, stuff like this crap really makes me glad I’m an atheist.
To the LW: Good on you and your boyfriend for helping people with genuine kindness. Ignore the haters.
Thank you for demonstrating the smugness and self righteousness that the LW clearly feels.
Ha, it’s a smug-off! +10 to Elaine for simultaneously implying that one must *never* address poor behavior by fellow churchgoers directly to them while also being a snarky jerk to fellow commenters in the discussion. Amazing.
I got the impression the previous commenter was doing the “not in front of the goyim!” thing – don’t you dare say bad things about another Christian except very quietly and then only to the authorities in your church, because anything else Looks Bad.
10/10, would lol again.
Also, clearly Elaine missed my entire point. I am NOT the LW, so how on earth does my smugness get transferred to her? Unbelievable. I simply mirrored your tone – which clearly you didn’t like, because guess what? No one likes to be condescended to, what a huge surprise! – to show you what you sounded like to people who a) belong to different churches which have different structures and b) simply cannot afford to always trust authorities to do the right thing. Clearly you’re determined to demonize the LW no matter what, so I humbly request you take your pearls elsewhere so LW doesn’t have to deal with internet people shaming her and her boyfriend for trying to get advice from someone who clearly has experience discussing and dealing with racism/classism.
Also, to completely change the subject, CA, I just want to tell you you’re awesome and I recommend your blog to friends all the time. Keep up the good work! You too, LW and your boyfriend!
I totally agree.
I think it’s less that she thinks she is better than those people and more that she IS better than them. These are people who are racist and hate poor people. They are objectively behaving badly.
I also find it very strange that you are ‘shocked’ at a Christian wanting to correct bad behaviour. Aren’t you supposed to follow the example of Jesus? Did he going running to the rabbi every time someone behaved badly, or did he take action?
Why wouldn’t the LW ask Captain Awkward? She’s asking for advice on how to respond to a social situation that that has her frustrated and wondering what to say. That’s a big part of what CA does. Just because the social situation is a church doesn’t mean that it’s inappropriate to reach out to an advice blog/column in general or CA in particular. This is not like that letter a few weeks back where the mom was asking for advice on how to force her adult daughter to into the mold that the mom preferred for her life. (Seriously, all I could think about that was, “Are you lost? Why are you here?”)
The social crap that can happen in a church is a specific variation on the social crap that can happen in any group of people, because churches are populated by people. Details may change between church and school and work and family and friends group and athletic club and geeky game night, but the broad strokes are all very similar.
The differences between doctrinal churches and liturgical churches were actually one of the subjects of discussion at tonight’s round table conversation at church, and this is an unbelievably vivid illustration of just what we were talking about.
Elaine May, I have no doubt that your statements about how church culture functions are true of your church. That’s really, really, REALLY not the same as them being true of all churches.
Aaaaaand thank you for reminding me why I noped out of church as soon as I was old enough to refuse to go. What you’re describing sounds more like the military than like anywhere I’d choose to spend my time. What, exactly, is harmful about bringing up stuff you hope your community can work on? Why exactly do you need to get the approval of a leader to do that? Can you hear how toxic you sound? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think petty squabbles are the main reason why your church has stopped growing. I think it’s because everyone’s busy silencing each other, because it’s against the rules to speak your mind and get things out in the open and have a frank discussion. It’s because you’re so focused on obedience that you are making it possible for people to contribute their insights and ideas. You even seem to have a problem with the fact that the LW asked an outsider’s opinion. Do you really want to be part of a community where thinking for yourself and speaking your mind in a productive way is wrong?
‘Why do you not go straight to your pastor and explain what is going on and then take his lead?’
Just wanted to point out that not every pastor (or priest, or bishop) is a man 🙂
Maybe consider dialing down the snark and the ALL CAPS. Attacking the LW for having the temerity to ask a question is…what’s the word that means the opposite of helpful?
Other people have responded to your comments, but I wanted to address the part about bringing it to leadership first being what is “biblically commanded”. Matthew 18:15-17 reads, “If your brother or sister sins go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church….” I know this isn’t a biblical discussion board, so I will leave it at that, but running straight to the pastor/minister/priest/bishop/other authority figure is NOT in fact what Christians are supposed to do; it’s the third step in a series of more significant levels of confrontation. And this sort of issue seems like exactly the sort of thing that is best to take care of on the spot. Some of the pearl clutchers may be so deeply wedded to their beliefs about the homeless/marginalized that they won’t listen to anything anyone says, but my experience is that those who are open to change will do better having a minor confrontation with someone else at their same “level” of authority than having a formal reprimand from the head of the church, since that makes it into a Big Deal and people will do a lot to cover/protect themselves in a situation like that rather than listening to the other person. I also second what the others have said about the importance for LW’s/BF’s guests; if the pastor takes the pearl clutchers aside after church and has a Conversation with them, that doesn’t change the fact that the guests heard one of the church members insult them in a significant way… without anyone standing up for them. Hearing someone else challenge that is a reminder that they are actually WELCOME to this meal.
I’ve found great success with the CA technique of feigning ignorance. Church Lady: “Those people are disgusting!” Me [polite shocked face, pleasant tone of voice]: “What do you mean?” Church lady: “Well you know…” Me [politely puzzled] “I don’t understand.” Most people will stop here as the awkwardness settles and you have violated the racist/classist/sexist space of pretending not to understand the stereotype. Change topic. If she doubles down with “They’re all [insert horrible comment],” you can respond with a startled look like you are *shocked* that such a wonderful person would say something horrible. With my family I will follow up with the “But that’s a really racist thing to say!” as though I am blown away that my racist relative would say something racist.
It doesn’t stop her from thinking those thoughts, but it prevents you from hearing them.
I love that, but I can’t pull it off. I can’t hold in the snarky sarcasm long enough to successfully do that with the right amount of faux wide-eyed innocence. Kudos to those who can, because it’s incredibly entertaining to watch a bigot struggle against it.
tl:dr – Churchy folk are human, and therefore prone to being disappointingly unholy compared to how they present themselves.
As a person who a) grew up in churchy things, and b) did it semi-pro for a while and c) wouldn’t return to it professionally ever, I can confirm that your experiences of people being passive agressive and not living up to their talk is, in fact, not at all uncommon when trying to actually get something done in a church. My food ministry at a church at one time (also a rather smells – & – bells kind of church) encountered a real mental block around the respectability of the poor folk who came to us for food, and church folks were in many ways deeply ignorant of the reality of poverty among real human people while they still loved to talk about food deserts and institutional racism. Yeah, sometimes when you sleep by the highway, you’re going to take heroin to make sure you can actually sleep. It’s shit and awful and not something anyone else gets to judge.
I think there are two philosophical stances to take on this kind of BS that you are encountering in the church. The people who disagree with the fact Wonderful Boyfriend is doing what the church is literally supposed to be doing either a) haven’t gotten the message and need convincing thru various means or b) need to be treated as obstacles to navigate around so that they don’t prevent you from doing the actual work of the Church. Apply either philosophy or both as needed, sometimes to the same person in the same conversation.
Your hurt and pain are valuable tools in this – because the jerk in question may not get that the homeless people coming for help are Actual Real People with Feelings, but they have figured out that YOU are, dear LW – so be hurt. Be open about being hurt. Say, “Wow, I’m really hurt by that thing you chose to say. Name and Name are people I care about.”And then let the person who hurt you show if you what kind of person they are in how they react. If Christianity has figured anything out, it’s that being Vulnerable and Open to the Suffering of Others is a really powerful damned thing, and if you can swing it, it can work for you. Be wounded.
I have not so much a strategy as a few things I return to when dealing with the failures of human beings in religious institutions.
-Churches are hospitals for sinners, not museums for saints – the people in the church are NOT better than the folks standing outside it, or the people coming for food. They are just not. Which means that they are going to be shitty, and fail, and it is to be expected. Temper your expectations and take care of yourself for a long haul, because while many will be jerks forever, some of them will surprise you. Wonderful Boyfriend may need this reminder and support if he’s going to keep doing this work in this situation.
– From Victor Hugo – Rich people have ” a giddiness of prosperity which dulls, a fear of suffering which, in some, goes as far as an aversion for the suffering [people]” – when you are comfortable, the idea that you might be uncomfortable or homeless is scary, and people are reminded of that when they see people who are homeless or poor or hurt in some way that is entirely possible- people ward off the injured victims so that they themselves don’t have to remember that they can be victimized too. This is human, and universal, and intensely shitty.
When people talk about the homeless without compassion, I bring this up as something I am afraid of myself “Oh, yes, seeing homeless people can cause such a kneejerk reaction of fear because I’m always afraid that if everything goes wrong for me, it might be me standing on the side of the street asking for help.” This sometimes works, because it points at the reality of many people’s gut reaction while also condemning it as a shitty reaction which must be overcome. I honestly think most people have some fear of being homeless that gets rationalized into a dislike of homeless people as a representation of that fear. The trick is to convert that into compassion rather than distaste.
-The work of church leaders is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Part of the point of this food ministry (tho only a side point) is to make the congregation you’re in more aware that there are hungry and homeless people near them. Some congregants will push back on this! (See Victor Hugo.) That is shitty, but it is shitty self absorbed stage on a (potential! optional! not assured!) pathway to those people being less shitty later.
OH, god, this got long on me. Sorry LW, I think you’re part of something really cool and there will be people who are on your side, but the reason that people are still homeless in this day and age is that many people don’t really want to actually do the work to fix the problem. Do the work and let the assholes manage themselves.
Thanks for these comments.
I think it was Ask A Manager who suggested the response “I hope you’re not saying that because you think I agree with you.” Although that one works better if the person is actually saying the appalling thing to your face.
oh i love this.
Just in case anyone reading thinks that this sort of behavior is restricted to the more traditional religions, I have heard exactly the same (and I do mean -exactly the same-) at UU meetings, Jewish temples and and buddhist sanghas. Methinks it’s not a religious thing, but a people thing. I doubt anyone who reads CA would believe otherwise, but thought I’d jump in anyway.
Absolutely. I’m Jewish, and have been active for years in a Reconstructionist congregation. It’s a people thing. Our movement is explicitly and directly welcoming to the GLBTQI community, and I have had to deal with a variety of bigoted comments in my years of leadership (and now in my years as a congregant).
It hits me harder when it happens to me in my congregation than at work, though, because I turn to my congregation as a solace from the world. Intellectually, I know that this is not really possible; emotionally I still expect to find a haven and I still expect everyone to have come to the Reconstructionist movement for the same reasons I did. Because it hits me harder and takes me by surprise – because I let my guard down and am more vulnerable – I am often deskilled and left stumbling and muttering ineffectually when it does happen.
tl;dr: when we open our hearts, as many of us do in our worship, sometimes we get hurt. Be gentle with yourself for not knowing the perfect thing to say in the moment. And another hearty round of Internet applause for doing A Good Thing.
I’m a Zen Buddhist. Ditto.
I’m an atheist and I routinely feel embarrassed at some of the stuff prominent non-believers say in public. It’s like, guys, you can’t declare religion is morally bankrupt for being oppressive/violent and then turn around and keep perpetrating that same shit. *facepalm*
I’m an atheist and I’ve encountered this sort of person in non-believer circles as well. Extra fun when anti-religious feeling (as opposed to non-religion) combines with dogwhistle racism.
This is a church, not a country club.
lol I was thinking something similar to that.
Might I suggest, if someone hasn’t already, talking to your preacher about it? With specific instances, if not the actual names (since the issue is less: “This individual person said something rude” and more “There is a bit of a problem with attitudes at the church.”). As the preacher and the leader of your faith community, it is his job to lead and guide his, er…”flock” I suppose, as it were.
I’m operating on an assumption that there are, like, homilies and what-not. But it seems to me that he could certainly take some of his position of authority to talk about exactly what should not be going on (and none of the vague: “Oh, be generous to the poor” that translates in Some People’s Heads as: “Give some money or old clothes, and hopefully we won’t have to see them.”)
This is one that could backfire, but you could always try asking, as innocently as possible, if there’s a problem. “Oh, we want this to be a nice event. What would you suggest?” And seeing if you can give them enough rope to hang themselves with.
Five gets you ten you don’t have to name names; the priest can probably go straight from the vaguest of descriptions to a mental photo line-up, complete with this year’s coat colors, habitual pew positions, and favorite shapes of shortbread cookies.
I can’t really speak to the “church” part of the petty church politics, but I do know petty politics. And I think it’s worth stepping back–and talking with your boyfriend as well about this–to clarify exactly what your goals are before getting into the snappy comebacks. It’s really, really easy for petty politics to derail a larger goal, because they involve thinking so intensely about tiny interpersonal details.
Example–just from reading your letter, I’d say your two goals are to 1. Protect the people your bf’s ministry is helping, and 2. Keep the ministry going. Fair?
Then – part of protecting your people will be to put bigoted volunteers in out-of-the-way jobs so they don’t have contact with people they may hurt, and to defend the respect and personhood of marginalized people.
Part of keeping the ministry going is to allow bigoted volunteers to save at least a little face so there’s less chance that they form a NastyGroup against your ministry. Also to keep your boss (paster/bishop?) apprised of the situation so they know you’ll be gently standing up for the people you’re helping. Like you’re supposed to!
Besides, you know the cliche thing to never punish someone in public? If a Church Lady says something nasty, defending her target in public is a good thing; snapping at her in public is probably a bad idea, and would be better coming in private from her pastor.
Like, beware petty politics. They’re everywhere because they’re so effective at taking down larger goals and derailing the shit out of people. You don’t have to hold yourself above it. But you do have to keep it in perspective and not get trapped in a politics spiral.
To follow up on this, it does sound like the people who support the lunch ministry are basically winning this battle. The lunch program is successful, has the support of most of the parish, of the clergy, the diocese, etc. It’s possible that the complaints you hear are marginal enough not to really have the power to harm, e.g., just someone who knows they’re on the losing side of what they see as a battle putting up a last dying show of symbolic resistance. Now I don’t know if that’s the case, and maybe others within your church (clergy, lay people who always seem to be at the centre of things) might have a better sense, but it’s at least possible that these ladies are best mostly ignored as endangered dinosaurs and left to go quietly extinct in some sanctuary off to the side where they can’t hurt anyone.
I think my only concern with this is that it takes tremendous courage for some people to ask for help – doesn’t matter what your circumstances, in the end all any of us have is our dignity – and if a homeless/needy person came to a church for a meal and overheard someone calling me disgusting, I would never go back. Because how am I to know that this is just an old dinosaur on her way out? Maybe she IS representative of a large group of people at this church that think I’m disgusting and don’t want me ever darkening their door again.
I think it’s in the best interest of the people the church is serving to have someone in authority (preferably the head pastor) sit down with the ringleader – and maybe the ring of old biddies that she leads too, YMMV, and set them straight. For the good of their own souls and the souls and bodies of those less fortunate than them.
Uh I meant to say if I were homeless/needy and came to a church… etc.
Oh totally agree. That’s why you need to defend the homeless & needy people you’re helping! I don’t think that TO_Ont was saying “ehhh fuck em” but saying “these Church Ladies have the power to harm individuals with their bigotry, so defend those individuals, but their words might not have the power to destroy your organization.”
Defending the people, however, IS tremendously important no matter the Church Ladies’ influence over the organization, so I want to re-emphasize that (on TO_Ont’s behalf a little bit, but also in case it wasn’t clear in my original comment).
Oh, for sure, if there is any risk of a visitor overhearing this, then that isn’t a situation where these old ladies have no power to do harm. That is harm.
What I mean is, you may not need to actually change their minds or even totally shut them up; it might be enough to figure out how to make sure they save their rants for clergy or trusted parishioners, for example.
In any case it might be useful to figure out in what ways they have the power to do harm and what ways they don’t.
Okay, not wanting to derail here, but — “old biddies”?
It seems uncool and uncharacteristic of the CA commentariat to use language which is casually insulting and dismissive of people simply for being old women.
It’s not just your comment; there are other comments which refer to the “little old ladies” always being the problem, or “old bigots who flap their mouths about ‘undesirables'”.
I am all for finding ways the LW can effectively challenge the bigotry! And there are obviously ways in which people’s bigoted views can be shaped by their age and class background.
But it doesn’t seem helpful to approach it with unconscious assumptions that the problem is Those Old Women, who must be petty/spiteful/sanctimonious/gossiping/meddling/bigoted/mockable because that’s just what old women are like.
And that also seems likely to exacerbate age-based elements of the conflict (e.g. if older members of the congregation feel they’re being ignored and sidelined in favour of the new shiny project being run by a young man who’s recently joined the church — as the LW says, there’s lots of insecurity here).
Thank you for pointing this out!
One other thing to watch out for is that in addition to straight-up prejudice (and I’m sure there is plenty of that!), Boyfriend may also be getting some pushback because this is a new project run by someone fairly young, and older people in the congregation who have their own long-established projects that give them social power can bitterly resent someone young moving in and “taking over” (in their perception of the situation). It may be worth making a concerted effort to make some allies among the older church members who’ve been active in charity work in the past, if you and BF haven’t already — getting those people on your side could really help shut down resentment.
Which is not to minimize the bigotry going on here — I absolutely believe there is plenty of that. But sometimes the internal politics within the congregation can make the difference between whether people voice their unpleasant thoughts out loud or keep them to themselves.
That is DEFINITELY a big part of what is going on here. Outreach ministry of basically any kind besides a few well-worn fan favorites (annual coat drive, etc.) died a quiet death a few years ago, and is now making a comeback at our parish with a number of projects. Add to the mix a new young priest and general turmoil in the Anglican Communion/Episcopal church, and you’ve got a recipe for a delicious insecurity cake.
+1 to description of delicious insecurity cake.
I am not a nice person, so I would not deal with these ladies well. (I am also not a Christian, so these sort of situations don’t really happen to me, so take what I say with ALL THE SALT).
I can really see myself responding by having my OWN not-talking-to-you-but-talking-loud-enough-so-you-can-definitely-hear-me moment.
“I love that our church actually encourages us to live according the the values of Christianity. After all, ‘chapter, verse, quote from Jesus literally talking about how Christians should feed the hungry, clothe the poor and give away their wealth, something something, camel through the eye of a needle’. I watch the media and these days it seems all the loudest people who claim to be Christian behave in ways that make it seem like they’d never even picked up a Bible, let alone read one!”
But like I said, I’m not a nice person. And while it’s not my faith, I do definitely like canon Jesus way more than fanon Jesus.
I love this. I am also not very nice – once I was at a quiet bar with friends, just talking poetry or whatever, and some girl comes in and just starts SHRIEKING with laughter, regularly. No one in the bar can hear themselves think. So I finally had enough, and after one of my friends said something funny, I just let it GO and shrieked just as loudly as she had been. “OMIGAWWWWWD, YOU ARE SO FUNNEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!” (She shut up after that.)
There’s what’s good for all parties, and then there’s what’s good for just-you, and sometimes I think it’s ok to indulge that a little. Then again, there’s a reason I go to church but am not involved in ministry.
lol I wish I could’ve seen the look on that girl’s face. Did she give you the look of death?
Wow, that actually sounds like a horrible thing to do.
Yup. Shaming people for having laughs you deem annoying = a shit move. Ruining someone’s day, possibly creating new insecurities, and then bragging about it? Really not cool.
Exactly – I sometimes get self-conscious about my laugh myself, and having a complete stranger maliciously mock me for it would be really humiliating.
I totally get where you guys are coming from! And I would not have done it under normal circumstances, but literally every table in the bar (it was a “let’s chill out here over a pint” kind of bar, not a “wooooooo partaaaaay!” bar) was glaring at her, and falling silent every time she shrieked, and she just was not getting the hint. It wasn’t a genuine laugh, either – she was just young and silly and deliberately unaware of her surroundings. I agree that it wasn’t nice at all – I acknowledged that in my original comment – but it was simply the only way to get her to stop.
So I absolutely get where y’all are coming from, and it was a last-case scenario, not something I do regularly.
Erm… did it perhaps not occur to you that dealing with a minor annoyance in your life might be preferable to humiliating someone over being “young and silly”?
“It was simply the only way to get her to stop” just isn’t doing it for me, sorry. She was laughing a little louder than you cared for. I am fairly sure that isn’t life-threatening.
Glad I’m not the only one who thought so. Poor girl.
“canon Jesus” vs. “fanon Jesus”. Brilliant!
As I mentioned upthread, my husband has been a youth pastor for almost 25 years, the whole length of our marriage. My original comment was going to be strategy in shutting these specific complaints down. But as I thought about it I remembered a larger truth: you will nearly ALWAYS hear complaints about ANYTHING you do in ministry. There will almost always be someone who disagrees with some part of what you’re doing: the people you’re bringing in, the clothes the teenagers are wearing, the music you’re playing, how long your prayers last. If I ever write a book, it will include a section on the things people find to complain about in ministry, and number one on the list will be the guy who berated my husband because when he baptized a particular woman he did not get her elbow all the way into the water. (Just imagine that poor lady in heaven some day, wandering around holding part of her arm in her other hand because her elbow didn’t make it past the pearly gates. So sad.) People seem to think that their tithes and offerings buy them the right to tell the pastors what they should and shouldn’t be doing.
If someone says something to you directly, you have every right to kindly and firmly shut it down. Use Scripture, if one comes to mind at the moment. Definitely talk to the priest about your concerns. But overall, as much as it pains me to say it, this is part of the gig. Church-goers are sadly not always Christians, not in the real sense of the word. (Or, I should say, the Word.) It will be so hard to hear people criticize your boyfriend, so much harder than if they were saying those things about you! It will be a constant temptation to dwell on what you could say, the biting responses you could give. But the best thing you can do is remember that those people aren’t the reason you serve. The homeless people aren’t the reason you serve, either; some of them may let you down, too. The reason you serve is to be the hands and feet of Jesus. The love you show is his love; it is because of his love, and his mercy, that you can offer that same love and mercy to others. They may not appreciate it, they may not want it, they may insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you–but blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
May God bless the light that Boyfriend’s ministry is bringing to the world. It’s important work! Don’t let anyone stop you from showing that light.
I’m going to be worrying about that poor woman’s unsaved elbow all night now…
But yes, having been involved in a different denomination of church politics, I do agree that a certain amount of whining/complaining/backbiting is universal and comes with being in leadership. (I actually didn’t run for a second term on our governing board because I didn’t want to see any more of the sausage being made – I stand by the results, but the process is emotionally exhausting). I think the thing that particularly bothered me about LW’s scenario, though, was the fact that the other congregants weren’t criticizing LW’s boyfriend or LW herself, they were saying terrible things about the people being served. I think that’s where it crosses the line for me from “potentially toxic but within the range of plausible church-related complaining” to “inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
“The reason you serve is to be the hands and feet of Jesus. The love you show is his love; it is because of his love, and his mercy, that you can offer that same love and mercy to others. They may not appreciate it, they may not want it, they may insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you–but blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”
Well good grief, LeighTX, this was just so beautifully said, it made this ol’ non-churchy gal tear right up.
Thank you, this was very lovely.
That’s just beautiful – thank you!
So, I am not and have never been a Christian. But my FIL is the walking talking epitome of Christian (to me). He’s an old-school, pot-smoking, nudist hippie minister who has spent his life working for the poor. He’s run soup kitchens and shelters, done hospice work, and was a computer consultant for the homeless. That’s a funny phrasing but he literally spent twenty years cobbling together four-generations-old donated computers to help keep up the tech at shelters. He’s a member of Geeks for God. He speaks like seven languages and can read Aramaic and runs a tiny non-denominational church by himself and he’s generally just THE SHIT.
He’s dealt with the sort of crap you talk about, LW, for his whole career. I imagine a lot of folks have. And I know he talks to others like him at conferences and forums and list srvs.
Not to direct you away from Captain Awkward (because she is great and awesome and I agree with everything she said) but those sorts of message boards may have some very concrete tactics and scripts (and scripture!) for you to work within the church. I will see if I can get in touch with him and see if he can suggest a specific one, if you like.
I do not have as much direct experience with church politics, but I do come from a perspective of Republican/Democratic borderlands knitting group politics. I hope it is okay to share, since Entitled Church Ladies (who also come in and buy all the yarn of a popular colorway everyone has been waiting) for also come to my local yarn store.
Actually my knitting store explicitly has a “no talking about politics” policy now, but things can still get offensive when someone makes really shitty classist/ableist comments in the middle of an otherwise heartwarming story (“my kid has been going through a hard time with hospitalizations, but at *least* she’s not on *government benefits*”) or once someone’s 12 yo kid busts out that they don’t read Harry Potter because witches are real and agents of Satan. o.O
There are some really awesome people there, but generally we are “I am in the middle of a complicated pattern oh god I don’t want this conflict” or “I work here and I can’t piss off customers.”
I have been working on letting a slight pause pass in the conversation, and then sharing a personal story that counters the narrative put forth by the initial speaker. So for example I remember someone saying a lot of things about prisoners and blah blah blah. A couple minutes later I shared that someone I know has been incarcerated for something, and he’s been having a lot of trouble finding work afterwards and he wants to go into [field that would help other former prisoners] but there are a lot of barriers into him going into that field because background checks. And the other people who had been biting their tongues were soon nodding along with me, and a couple other people shared similar stories, and so the mood shifted from “yup let’s all shit on prisoners” to “ok so not everyone agrees with this and if I speak about this I will personally offend someone here because it personally affects them, it’s not just a Political Thing where we can yell talking points at one another.”
Also, everyone totally knew what I was doing — i.e. gently saying I disagreed with what was said before — but because I just presented it as an “oh on a related note, here’s my experience with X” it made it really hard for them to argue it as a political point. I was just sharing! Something heartfelt! I got a lot of grateful looks from certain fellow knitters allies. Not so from others, but. Enough.
That is also really exhausting and “Oh, bless!” is totally a legit response as well.
Just wanted to offer this as an additional tool for your toolbox though. Some of those knitters are also super intimidating Church Ladies used to getting their way, so I figure it might work in similar venues.
This is incredible. Thank you so much for this. This is exactly the kind of approach that would work very, very well for me. Not the LW, but THANK YOU.
I’ve always liked “wow.” Or a well raised eyebrow.
New Testament Christianity is practical, passionate and revolutionary. If you hate the poor, you aren’t a Christian. You just centre your social life around a pretty building.
I’d be very surprised if the pastor doesn’t know what’s going on. I’d say it’s their responsibility to correct the non Christian behaviour of their flock. Perhaps the basic sermons need to be rehashed – the Good Samaritan (value of charity, foolishness of racism), the time(s) Jesus hung out with lepers, whores and tax collectors. The bit where he was an out of work carpenter who hung out with unemployed fishermen?
I’m not a Christian but I’m a huge fan of good works and I will literally never understand how people can hate the poor, hate welfare and be against free healthcare – but think of themselves as Christians.
Sending you and Boyfriend a lot of love, LW. I work directly with the homeless, in a secular capacity (but assisted by many churches in our community) and it’s tough work. I can decompress from a rough day with the guests fairly quickly, because I’m pretty close to the edge to myself and I know that sleep deprivation + hunger + unaddressed mental health issues + poverty = hey, we’re not winning any Miss Congeniality contests around here.
But I have a much harder time dealing with judgmental people who are living safely and securely away from the front lines. My coping strategy has been to get loud about what we do. I just assume that *everyone* wants to help the homeless, and if they haven’t helped yet, it’s because they don’t know how. So I give them ideas.
I’ve had people ask me “Do the homeless people smell bad?” And I cheerfully answer “Well sure, sometimes, which is why we always need donations of baby wipes and febreze. Here’s the rest of our wish list! Thank you so much!”
I’ve had people ask “What about all the drug addiction?” And I fire right back, “Terrible, isn’t it? People can be in so much pain, and get so frustrated with the maze of bureaucracy, that they decide to take matters into their own hands. Here’s a number to a needle exchange program, and this other organization has meetings every Thursday.”
Wishing you all the serenity and success you both deserve.
I love this approach. I’ve been known to respond to comments such as “why don’t they just get a job” with a long-winded exposition on the difficulty of getting a job when one doesn’t have an ID nor money to pay for a drivers license nor someone to teach one to drive nor money to buy a car and forget public transportation as it’s non-existent in our area, etc., etc. I’d like to believe it causes the commenter to either (1) think a little harder about their own privilege, or (2) think twice before starting a conversation with me.
I like, “Oh, are you hiring?” as a response to the “get a job” comment.
My lifelong-member-currently-working-for Anglican/C of E church penn’orth:
I’ve met these ladies. In all churches. The general attitude amongst the ones I’ve known tends toward “Priests may come but – 5, 10, even 20 years – they eventually go. But we are always here.”. And it is a social-club thang, and it is tradition and habit and class and wealth. My go-to approach has always been the non-rhetorical-rhetorical-question, delivered in a genuinely questioning tone and with a slight head tilt as if I await the beneficence of their greater knowledge. If someone had said to me,
“This isn’t the [local homeless shelter]. This is disgusting.”
I would’ve answered with a gosh-educate-me head-tilted “So you think the church of Christ should be closed to those who need help?” and then just stood there and waited for an answer.
LW, you and your bf are doing an awesome thing and whatever happens you should keep going. Engage with these ladies, ignore them, send yourself to sleep every night by imagining their damascene conversion, whatever helps, but KEEP GOING.
Saying you have to be pure and holy before coming to church is like saying you have to get clean before getting in the shower.
It of course wildly depends on the context/structure of the comment, but a look of confusion and a sincere-sounding request for an explanation can be DEVASTATING. It’s just about the best way ever to respond to a racist joke, for instance. Making them explain the joke forces them to confront their own statement.
This may not work here, but it’s a tool to keep in mind.
Incidentally, I’m an atheist, but I heartily approve of religious charities that actually prioritize helping people above winning Jesus Points. I work with some religious charities, but I’m always careful to check up on them, before I do. I want to help people who need help, not win souls for Christ
LW, I don’t have much to add that others haven’t said already, but I do have a thought and a story. In my experiences with church politics, you are meant to hear those comments and to pass them along to your boyfriend. So I think your decision to not pass them along to your boyfriend so far is a good one, and it’s probably a good idea to keep doing that.
The story is that I know a pastor who began to hear similar classist complaints about some of the people who attended his church. So he started wearing work boots and dirty overalls to preach in until the complainers got the hint and knocked it off. I don’t know if a priest in a liturgical church can do that, but I thought it was a good object lesson in “man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart”.
I also want to reiterate what somebody said upthread about not having a divide between the “ministers” and the “ministered-to”. Can you get your priest or bishop or any other regular members of the congregation to show up for lunch to eat, not to work? Can you recruit the complaining church ladies to do behind-the-scenes work like cooking so that people like your boyfriend can sit down for lunch sometimes? Having a more diverse group might help remove some of the stigma of being the “ministered-to” and also build community with your neighbors.
The more I think about it, the less important I think it is to “convert” the complainers. I agree with CA that it’s important to make sure they know you disagree, but right now it seems like them whining behind the scenes isn’t going to change anything. It’s hard to find out that your friends hold ugly views like that, but if they haven’t figured it out in a lifetime of being in church, you probably won’t change their minds. Good luck with everything from another former church lady.
I’ve always found questions are a good way of handling those sorts of things. Cheerfully asking “Sorry, what’s disgusting?” and “I’m not sure I understand, who’s disgusting?” and “which people?” persistently backs people into their own awkward corner. Smart ones end the conversation while they’re ahead and don’t say it around you again. Foolish ones just keep answering until they’ve openly admitted their racism. It’s still fairly confrontational, but it looks less so from the outside-you’re not yelling, you’re clarifying-and it makes the experience very unpleasant for them, and much less unpleasant for you.
I’m in favor of you working up a dramatic reading of Luke 6:17-49 and delivering it at the first sign of a discouraging word. The Sermon on the Plain has been a winner for 2000 years now, give or take. It’s been unfashionable for a while, but that just means it’s time to bring it back.
^This may explain why I’m not currently a member of any congregation. But seriously, the Gospels are on your side. Quote scripture at them.
My response is more along the lines of finding quotes from Christ in the four gospels (rather than all the stuff from Paul in the Acts and the epistles that the pecksniffs, poke-noses and do-nothings in the church tend to be much more fond of) which support your point. Things like Matthew 25: 31 – 46 (The parable of the Sheep and the Goats).
If your priest is willing to help out, they may be interested in a sermon around this particular text. If you have a choir director who is interested in more recent religious music, they may know of the Sydney Carter song “When I Needed A Neighbour”, which is more of a meditation on this theme. However, given you say this is supported right the way up to diocese level, and yet these people are STILL carrying on in this way, I doubt another sermon on the general principle is going to mend matters. Christ has the misfortune of being worshipped in abstract by a lot of people who would cross the street to avoid him in person (homeless, swarthy, Arabic-looking, unwashed, poor, dependent on charity…)
So, double-check the priest and the bishop are behind you, and then just calmly say “well, $PRIEST’S_NAME doesn’t seem to have any problems with it, maybe you should raise this issue of yours with them?”
Another thing that occurs to me is that this may be classist against LW’s boyfriend as well as against the people he is ministering to. LW mentioned that both their boyfriend’s parents had been homeless at different times. If the scornful-of-the-guests people know that, they may be thinking (consciously or otherwise) that he’s not good enough to be running a ministry in what they think of as their nice church.
I am going through something similar in my church. What has helped me immensely is enlisting the staff and one or two church officers by asking them how *they* would handle it. How they respond will be telling. If you’re up against broader church culture you might not get much support. But if it’s only a few bad apples or a specific clique, staff and the appropriate lay leadership will have a closed door meeting and become a united front at addressing it in the moment, be it your boyfriend’s ministry or another ministry of the church they don’t approve of for whatever reason. Church culture takes a long time to change – don’t be discouraged if it’s slow going.
Minister here! I’ve actually had this happen at the churches (plural, wtf!) that I’ve worked at. The thing that has been the most helpful is taking a stance similar to the one CA recommended a few letters ago: The curious innocent. In this case, a well-placed “Really? Disgusting? I always thought that Jesus encouraged us to minister to the poor, especially when it can make us uncomfortable, since that means we’re rubbing up against some issues and growing. Am I remembering that wrong? How would you minister to the less fortunate?” If you can manage to say that with a loving, forgiving, straight face (A: You are excellent and B: Again, you are SUPREMELY excellent) it can really help put stuff into perspective. Be innocent here and go for the “can you help me, please?” look. With parishioners, as a minister OR as a fellow congregant, it works… miracles (ba-dump-ching). Allowing people to save face is a great thing here, especially when you might be able to get a volunteer to help implement an additional aspect to the program out of it. In my experience, the naysayers have become the biggest advocates when they think they’re helping provide input and when they know they are helping something great. Their opinions count and aren’t ignored!
PS- this is a WONDERFUL ministry that y’all are doing. Thank you and keep up the good work! Also, please eat some ice cream or drink some wine or take a nap. Something, this certainly seems like a frustrating handful.
LW, a few years ago my mother started a program to feed hungry children at the school where she teaches. Our church, so went the plan, would make up care packages of enough food for a weekend for kids who were on the free and reduced price lunch/breakfast program. (A kid had said to her, fairly casually, something about it being nice to come to school because at school they got to eat twice a day.) Our church stepped up like total champs! Families donated food and supplies, the youth group packaged the meals… and the school worked it out so the kids could stop by the counselors office discreetly if they chose, so any kids who felt embarrassed wouldn’t have to choose between their sense of dignity or being hungry.
And then at a church meeting, a guy who was sort of a family friend said (and I warn you, this is horrible) that the whole thing was a waste because all the parents were drug addicts and would just take the food for themselves. His view was, thank God, not a popular one at all but he actually said that filth with his mouth. To my mother, who was sending this food home in some cases to families she knew personally but the whole principle behind that sucked anyway because drug addicts need to eat, too? Addiction is not a reason to withhold charity.
I applaud my mother for keeping her cool, because I think I’d have lost it at him.
Your story reminded me of that incident. I can never look at that man without thinking that he not only thought those things, but figured it would be a popular and correct enough viewpoint that he should say it aloud.
I’m really glad for you all that your boyfriend’s ministry has the support of your parish and will go on strong whether the unpleasant people like it or not. They may or may not have a change of heart, but I’m with whoever upthread who said that’s okay- they have growing to do, too, and if they’re doing it out of hearing of the people they stand to hurt, and they’re not getting in the way of people being fed, then let them.
Good on you all for what you’re doing! Since it’s all I can do, I’ll keep you collectively and the ministry in my prayers.
This is my unpopular opinion, but I would have addressed the comment in the moment with a solution, presented as a concern that we could address. We had a similar issue come up with a charity toy drive to provide holiday gifts to poor kids; someone pointed out that parents would steal any gifts of value and hawk them for drugs. While it is something that I have no doubt could and did happen with some of the families of these kids, I was concerned that it would prevent people from donating, especially to older children. I pointed out that there is *very little* resale value on things like children’s books and board games/puzzles, and suggested those instead of pricey electronics. I chose to meet this concern as a problem we could solve rather than a judgment on the person raising it, but that doesn’t always fly.
In this instance, I would probably have asked the man what ‘*he* thought we should do to prevent this from happening. Donate enough food so parents can eat too? Set up a place where kids can have lunch at the church, with other kids?
I have met some truly awful, toxic parents in my day (and had them, FWIW) and I would hate for kids to lose out because their parents are shitty, selfish jerks.
Actually, I think that’s a very nice and compassionate response. I like that it reminds somebody with toxic views that everyone he’s talking about is human, that it doesn’t de-humanize him, and it focuses back on the best way to help kids in need. Your solution is probably more like the one my mom would automatically give than I would (I have a sharper temper than she does.) I don’t know what was said to him at the time- I wasn’t in the meeting and I heard the story from her and my dad later when they were home and could just air their feelings honestly.
Happy ending, though, the program took off and did so well that they ended up expanding to two or three more local schools and it’s been going strong for 7 or 8 years now. They feed the kids over the summer as well.
This is such a fantastic idea! I think I’m going to steal it and suggest it at our own church. I had forgotten until now that the school where my mom taught does this, they have backpacks that the kids can take home (full of food) and return empty on Monday and no one knows there’s food in it.
Jumping on the “stealing this idea” train, or at least passing it on to my dad; he does a lot of food-related volunteering and is relatively active with our local church besides, and I think it’d be right up his alley.
“Acting like Jesus is disgusting?” Shut that shit down. Nothing sickens me more than fake christians.
I was raised Anglican/Episcopalian. Mum ran into stuff like this in a big way when she set up a twice-yearly fundraising drive for similar causes at our wealthy, WASP-y church. Happily, she persevered, and now the drives she set up have been taken on by younger members of the church and continue to raise thousands every Christmas and Easter. I really congratulate you and your boyfriend for your commitment to living the message. You’re doing great work.
Anyway, reading your letter I had the idea it might be useful to have up your sleeve a few choice quotes from the Good Book itself to use as scripts. You can say them pretty much as non sequiturs and they’ll work. The one I had in mind for ‘this isn’t a homeless shelter!’ was Matthew 25:30 – ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, and I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in’. If someone says to you, “we’re not a food bank!”, you can simply reply with ‘love thy neighbor’, or ‘ah well, even Jesus fed the multitudes when they were hungry’. Say it with a loving smile and it a) won’t require you to think of what to say and b) will be pretty darn hard for a fellow Christian to argue with!
Good luck! and p.s. you make me think of Isaiah 58:16-10: “Is not this the [worship] that I choose: to lose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
These are the same people who complain about declining attendance in church. What they really mean of course, is “declining numbers of people just like me showing up.”
One thing I wonder about in CA’s answer “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”. That might be so, but they also might not want to talk to the pastor because they know that your church supports your ministry. They might be saying ‘I hate this, it’s not what I need from the church, I want to feel socially comfortable, but I’m powerless to overtly protest this change.
And that’s not right, and we don’t have to validate her feeling, or tolerate her feeling Studying grace at the moment – can you tell? – but one thing the study suggests is that we try to see that as her being spiritually needy.
I’m terrible at social interactions, which is why I read CA (all the instructive brilliance), so in practice I’d ignore the comment and feel bad about it privately, but I was trying to think what meeting that comment with love would look like. And with the most respect for CA possible, while a ‘fuck-you’ tone or out Church Lady-ing someone might work, I’m not sure it’s what we signed up to do. (My cousin is a minister, and he talks about winning the battle but losing the war.). The Captain’s suggestion that you remind the speaker that they’re talking about actual people – that seems just right.
And as everyone else has said – your boyfriends work is so worthwhile. My sister lost her house, and was just in a desperate place that we, her family, couldn’t seem to get her past, and a church like yours stepped in and had the expertise to support her in so many different ways – it’s life-saving stuff. Thanks.
Thanks for this comment. Your comment and others here have really made me think about this anew, and I think that my “eff you!” framing yesterday was not the best path, so thank you, and dr. silverware, and many others.
However, there is a very interesting pattern in some of the comments in this discussion along the lines of “if you want to change these people’s minds” or “if you want to minister to them” or “if you want to convince them/open their hearts,” then directly confronting their comments is *not* the way. You should talk to the pastor, maybe get it addressed through a homily, or ignore it/be the bigger person for the greater good, etc. It’s making me think a lot about my own approach to certain situations and why mine might be more confrontational than people are comfortable with.
When someone I know makes a racist comment, or calls other people “disgusting,” (or tells a rape joke, or says something else terrible in a public setting)…
Is the priority in that moment to change their mind/open their hearts/”educate” them?
Or is it to stop their harmful behavior from continuing in that moment?
If a student says something that crosses a line in my classroom, I might go the extra mile to be very gentle and hope that the conversation will change their mind. But I also have a responsibility to the other people in the class to stem the tide of harmful words pretty quickly.
When a relatively privileged person says something awful, people are very quick to remind each other that we have to be “nice” if we want to really change their hearts and “teach them by example” to do better. These mythical church ladies, the ones who loudly proclaim others to be “disgusting,” are on the one hand so powerful that “Following CA’s strategy is leading you into a 100 years war that you probably won’t win” but so fragile that being told “Hey, don’t do that” or “That is out of line” or “Is that really what you think?” makes you the offensive one for insufficiently considering their spiritual development.
These messages are depressingly familiar:
-“You won’t win.”
-“It won’t change their minds, so why bother.”
-“If you react with anger, it will prove their point that (people like you) are just angry and can’t work with others.”
-“If you react in a snarky or less than perfectly angelic and understanding way, it will turn (men who hate women, racist people, people who don’t support full human rights for LGBTQ people, take your pick) off to your movement”
I’m really warmed and inspired by the compassion and sweetness that some of you are advocating in response to these church members, but on some level, someone who thinks the poor are “disgusting” and will say it out loud (so that the LW will be, to be honest, “reminded of her place” and “passively-aggressively manipulated to stir things up with her boyfriend” which is the goal of saying these things sotto voce where she can hear them) was maybe never gonna be part of that movement. Does all social change have to take place at the rate that the world’s biggest assholes feel comfortable with? I would argue: No. But the long-term health and survival of a church is also not my priority or frame of reference, which is why I’m not a church member or pastor.
If you go to church, are you ever allowed not to center a rich white person’s feelings over your own and the feelings of everyone around you? Are you ever allowed to imply that maybe they aren’t as well-intentioned and “nice” as they think they are? Are you ever allowed to lose your temper a little bit and say “Really, Margaret?” or “I didn’t quite catch that, could you repeat it?” or “I hope you’d feel differently if you spent a little time volunteering, you’re always invited to come join us for lunch” or “Well, bless you!” (My actual suggested scripts were riddled with F-bombs and brimstone, were they not? But the merest suggestion of “snark” or a less than perfect concern for people at a Christian church expressing public disdain for the poor, and the moral high ground crumbled through my fingers, forever. Oh well.)
Do you want to change minds? Right here and now?
Or do you want to stop the harmful behavior now and try to change minds later?
That should inform your responses, LW, and the generous commenters have given you many ways to do that that were better than my suggestions.
“I’m really warmed and inspired by the compassion and sweetness that some of you are advocating”
Me too, way better than my passive-aggressive snark!
Am I right in thinking that it boils down to a hate-the-sin type approach – absolutely condemn the behaviour, and challenge it on the spot, but have compassion for the individual speaker and try to change their mind in the long run?
You’re right. Passive-Aggressive-Pearlclutcher probably isn’t going to be part of this movement. But she might be. It does happen. Her scandalized feelings don’t trump the needs of others. You can totally call her on her bullshit.
But I think you can lovingly say “Really, Margaret?” without forgetting that she, too, is a person. You don’t have to see her as disgusting, even though her comments are horrible.
People often respond to unspoken compassion, eventually, in a way that doesn’t happen when you kind of hate that jerk even if you don’t say it out loud.
If you, the Captain, are compassionate (even if that compassion is unspoken), and you believe in your student’s ability to learn this and grow—well, you can still tell him “Rape jokes aren’t allowed here, full stop. I can’t let you harm the other students this way.” But there’s a big difference between an unspoken “you JACKhole; don’t ever reproduce” and “because I care about you, and your words are harming you too, and I will do my best to show you.”
If LW says, “Really, Margaret? I’m sorry, I can’t let you say that here—Jim and Jane are very dear to me” with an unspoken internal subtext of “I expect better of you, I have seen the good in you, and I trust that you can learn to love others,” that’s very different from an adversarial approach, even if the words stay the same.
Absolutely. Thank you for this clarification. I think the thing I am reacting to (which is the same thing I reacted to when I used to sit in church) was the implication that there is something wrong with you if you get angry when someone say something horrible and something REALLY wrong if you show it. It’s an extension of the overall cultural message…or rather the origination of it…that women especially must always put others’ feelings before their own/consider the whole person/work for the other person’s learning and development and that challenging a relatively powerful person or displaying anger at something they do is not just unwise, but a greater failure on your part than their original behavior. I grew up in an environment where people in authority regularly communicated: “If I get angry with you when you do something wrong, I am just trying to help you and guide you, but if you get angry when someone hurts you, you should immediately rise above it and think of how to set an example for them.”
The scripts I offered were all pretty gentle, which is honestly how I roll in person. The commentary/feelings around them were not, b/c I wanted to validate the LW’s anger at what these people are saying & doing.
That dynamic has been very toxic & dangerous for me, personally, growing up, and I have a visceral reaction to it in all its forms.
It is toxic. Christ Himself got angry at injustice. Anger = sign that boundaries have been violated. It’s like pain. It’s supposed to be there. It helps keep you safe.
I really am trying to say “Yes, and—” not “No but”.
TO_Ont’s point about authority is pretty relevant too. LW has a social responsibility in that she’s responsible for her choices in how she responds, and she has the right to respond as she sees fit. But the priest and bishop absolutely have to address this. It’s a parish-killer, and it’s harming those souls they have dedicated their lives to protect.
What makes you think that the only people who do this are rich and white? I wrote the 100 years war comment and I stand by it.
My church (and father) are exactly the model of church that the people here are advocating. A highly diverse church that spends most of its time and money in homeless programs, alternative education for excluded children, substance abuse support and anti-police brutality work. There is no area they won’t go to, no help they won’t give, no support. They are also pretty liberal on sexuality.
And guess what? There is STILL backbiting.There is still rudeness. There is still “disgusting” behavior. People are people and are capable of amazing and awful things. If you don’t believe they can repent and be forgiven, I’m not sure why bother going to church.
This isn’t like a hated family member. The LW has no ability to “banish” these people from the church. I’m not trying to be rude but if the LW feels it’s too much, then she should step back for her own mental health.
This has been a really fascinating discussion, and I’ve really appreciated the back and forth Jennifer. I personally have felt two competing impulses in these kinds of situations – one to show compassion, wisdom, and grace when dealing with people behaving obnoxiously, and one to honour our own selves, our sense of what is ok, and giving our selves a voice when we encounter something horrible.
Having spent a lot of my life being peace maker and wanting to keep everyone happy, it’s easy to move straight to taking the so-called compassionate approach.
What so much of reading Captain Awkward is for me is validating my own voice, and my right to have a voice. It is not my role to look after everyone else’s feelings, and because I’ve done that all my life, at the expense of looking after my own, I am only now slowly learning to listen and value and give voice to my self. What I’ve found is that when I don’t do that for myself (ask my boss not to make misogynist jokes in front of me, etc) I feel bad. I feel like a victim, I feel powerless, upset. When I *do* say something, it actually doesn’t matter that much if the behaviour changes, the wonderful thing is that I’ve validated myself, I’ve said ‘I matter’, I’ve stood up for myself.
It’s probably only once I’m fully able to own and honour my own experience (like we should have learned to do as toddlers) that I’ll be ‘wise’ and ‘mature’ enough to show compassion to others in a way that doesn’t compromise myself. And I think I need to be ok with that, and go with it, and not find some shortcut to compassion which really just ends up silencing myself. My experience of the church (grew up in it, went to theological college in my mid 20s, decided I wasn’t a Christian at about 28) is that it encourages the shortcut to compassion without ensuring it’s got a solid foundation.
I’m not in a position where I feel responsible for protecting others around me, or maintaining a safe space for them, but that would certainly add to me leaning in favour of saying something reasonably direct.
Another thread that can complicate things for me is that in a broad sense, I am discovering my anger. It has been unleashed in me, and there is a lifetime of rage just waiting for an opportunity to roar. A bad driver can make me disproportionately furious! Sometimes I need to check in with myself about whether my reaction is due to the present situation, or whether it’s really about a past thing.
Thanks everyone for your thoughts and discussion. This has been really useful for me.
Oh, and the other thing I meant to say: some Christians (I say this as a former Christian who is guilty of what I’m about to accuse Christians of!) take so much responsibility for trying to change what other people think. Sure it’s a wonderful thing to be able to influence people for good, (especially Christians saying hateful bigoted things), and a well timed comment could possibly make a difference, but there’s a kind of arrogance in believing you have to give the perfect response at the perfect moment in order to achieve some change in someone else.
This isn’t directed to the Letter Writer, but just a more general comment in response to what some of the other churchy people have written.
“[The cultural message that]…displaying anger at something they do is not just unwise, but a greater failure on your part than their original behavior”
Yep yep yep, yep yep. Yep.
I hate this too. I actually came on CA today trying to defuse a memory of being called “self-aware” after I apologized to someone…for getting angry when they offended me. It was just–aaaah! No. Such a headfuck from someone I cared about, a lot. Not ok.
I also try to keep this in mind when I go on any kind of spiel about how important it is to treat others with compassion, to choose repetition over violence whenever feasible (because YMMV), etc., because I know how easily it can cross the line into implying “and don’t feel or express anger because then YOU are the problem.” I think it’s possible to understand that the two things are different, but hard to make the distinction in words sometimes. I’m glad the subject came up here, and I hope it does again. It’s very, very important for those of us who believe in expressing negative feelings but want to prioritize compassion. They aren’t (always) contradictory.
It absolutely isn’t about not disagreeing with them, or not speaking firmly to them. There is no contradiction at all between tellung someone you disagree strongly with them, and trying to be kind to them. It’s not about putting their feelings ‘above yours or those around you’, just about acknowledging them at all.
And I don’t think a teacher speaking to a student who is ouy of line is comparable at all. There’s an authority there that most people will recognize, even if reluctantly.
To me, suggesting the LW speak to the priest or to the other socially powerful older members of the congregation is just acknowledging that. They have more of that power than the LW does, and the LW shouldn’t need to handle this situation alone or just somehow be confident that an old lady who doesn’t respect them will suddenly start doing so.
I just don’t think an old lady who’s actually willing to go up to the face of the (young, new) person who is actually at the heart of a ministry and call it disgusting is likely to stop making rude comments because a (young, new) person makes a slightly witty or even somewhat firm remark ‘calling her out’. If they had enough respect for the feelings or opinions of the LW and the BF to respect being publicly put in their place by them, they would never have made the comments in the first place.
So, state your disagreement briefly, change the subject, then seek out those with more power to help you out.
Yes this. I am future clergy, and therefore am professionally required to hold people whose views I find abhorrent with love. The way I square this circle is that, I figure, explaining to someone why their behavior is unacceptable in a compassionate way IS, indeed, holding them with love, because I am giving them a compassionate path towards being a better person.
“People often respond to unspoken compassion, eventually, in a way that doesn’t happen when you kind of hate that jerk even if you don’t say it out loud.”
I think I’d be inclined to use the same strategy with this lady that I once used with my nasty fil when he said something incredibly unkind: smile and say, “Wow, Mrs. X, my hearing must be going. I know you would never have said anything as cruel and insensitive as what I thought I just heard.” And make sure everyone who heard her comment hears your comment.
LW, I’m an ex-evangelical atheist who works with marginalized people through my job, so I understand church culture and church-speak, even though I admittedly do not buy in anymore. I have some suggestions about how to approach this in your church community, and then how I handle through work.
1.) Are the guests at your boyfriend’s lunches becoming involved in the church, or are they just coming for lunch/events? Just to be clear, I think either is fine, but if they are starting to attend services etc., getting them involved might be a good way to show these women that these homeless folks are part of the church community rather than targets for your boyfriend’s ministry.
2.) Are there other ministries/service initiatives that your church runs? If not, is there an opportunity to do so? I think that these women can be put to work and encouraged to get involved, but pressuring them or encouraging them to join the homeless ministry is probably not the right call (because of their attitudes/fear/whatever their problem is).
3.) Is there an opportunity to get to know these women better, apart from the ministry, like through your women’s program or something? Getting to know *you* and your boyfriend will help change hearts and minds.
My advice for anyone non-churched dealing with this is to pretty much do what Jennifer says, with a caveat that I can’t be so blunt at work. So I meet people where they are.
As an example, we have a legal clinic at a women’s shelter, although men are occasionally invited by the host org if they have legal problems (and in my experience, some of these men can be intimidating, threatening, and will show up drunk/high). I encourage people to volunteer, but also, in the most non-judgmental way possible, explain all possible scenarios. My script is something like this: “The clinic is at Women’s Shelter, and the clients will mostly be women who have fled domestic violence relationships and who are living in the shelter with their kids while the city works out a permanent placement. However, sometimes Host Org will invite men who need legal help to the clinic. If you feel uncomfortable, you can discreetly tell the rep from the Host Org that you would prefer to interview a different client or only work with women. They will not judge you for this, all clients need to be seen”.
In my experience, everyone whose expectations have been managed has a good experience and volunteers again. If I attend, I typically take the clients who might make my volunteers uncomfortable. I also find other ways for people to want to help to get involved, and encourage others who are unsure of working with the homeless to think of other things they might want to do. (As an example, a friend of mine files birth certificate applications for the clients but is uncomfortable at the clinic. She’s not a bad person because she dislikes going to the shelter, and her work is honestly life-changing for these clients, who can now obtain ID and housing.)
I’m a religious type, and I definitely vote for out-Church Ladying the Church Ladies. It’s a strategy that has served me exceptionally well in dealing with unpleasant family members, because it turns their strategy back at them – protest makes the protester look like a jerk. Feed them scripture right back, and they get to choose between looking like Not Good Church Ladies After All or shutting up.
“It’s not a homeless shelter here!”
“But Boyfriend is doing such a good job following Christ’s direction, and it’s *wonderful* that the church supports him in this effort. ‘Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, ye do also unto me’ and all that. Volunteering is such a blessing, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to do this.” /subtle challenging stare
This reminds me of when I was in my early twenties, working at a fast-food place to make ends meet while completing my tertiary studies. There was a church literally next-door to us whose members tended to be a little wealthier than average for the neighbourhood. They would very often stop in and get sandwiches and salads and things for lunch after services. Most of them were perfectly lovely. But there was one small group you just wouldn’t believe.
They would discuss the sermon they had just come from and how much it meant to them and so on while behaving in ways that were directly against what they were saying. For example, Jesus and the tax collector, Zacchaeus? They would dissect that story in a way that seemed to show they really understood it while being so horribly rude to us workers it was shocking. “You got my sandwich wrong, you idiot! How can anyone be so stupid? Your parents must cry every day knowing they have a child as stupid as you! This is why retarded people shouldn’t be allowed to breed! No wonder you’re working in fast food!” etc. etc. and another would tell her, “No, don’t talk to them like people, that never works. Just say what you want slowly and clearly and they usually understand it. They’re not like us.” and so on. It was the kind of thing you’d see in a larger-than-life tv show skit or something. And they would do this every time. The level of hypocrisy was just incredible. They were ruder than any other customers we ever had.
The point is, there will always be some awful people out there. And some of these will go to church to convince themselves they aren’t awful, as though just sitting and listening to a story with a moral automatically makes them a good person, instead of putting the effort into applying that moral to their lives. They’ll feel high and mighty about it. Being old and going to church isn’t an excuse to be awful–there are plenty of nice older church-goers out there. But as Captain says, don’t do nothing–they make your whole group look bad, and worst of all, if they don’t mind other church-goers from hearing their awful, loudly-stated opinions, then they certainly won’t mind the needy people hearing them too! That’s the last thing a homeless or hungry person deserves.
You can’t stop awful people from being awful, but you can at least try to stop other people from having to deal with them. It’s not about the horrible people nearly as much as it is about those who are in need. A few carefully-aimed comments might be enough for them to figure out that they’ll be called out on their nonsense, and hopefully they’ll learn to keep their mouths shut.
I am not a Christian now, but I was raised Catholic and have a large, conservative Protestant extended family. They are frankly mostly jerks, but I am around them occasionally at family functions.
When one of them brings up some kind of opposition to social aid programs, I get a kick out of making a big-eyed innocent face and saying, thoughtfully “Well, Christ fed the poor and healed the sick, so I think we as a nation should do our best to do as he did.” It’s beautiful because how can they argue with Christ?
I do want to note that many commenters’ advice means taking on a lot of emotional and administrative labor for a program that the LW is not actually running.
My gut reaction is to be concerned that LW is being urged to take on the entire burden of changing hearts and minds in the congregation. This feels like a call to do unending, thankless emotional labor – a common trap for women in non-religious life, let alone religious life.
LW, I suspect that your boyfriend can handle knowing that his work is unpopular in some quarters. He may already know. It is not your job as a supportive partner to fix the congregation’s awful people without him suspecting, though I 100% support whatever tactic you take (or don’t take) to address hateful comments.
You are SO RIGHT here – this is something I didn’t consider in my response.
A couple of things that may or may not be helpful, so feel free to use or toss as necessary. There have been many good suggestions on how to confront or pass on to higher authorities as necessary, so I won’t try to add to that. A couple of related thoughts that might help the situation out, based on my past experiences.
First of all, in my experience (I work with homeless people on a daily basis at my job), the homeless as a group are like any other type of people as a group. Some are fabulous, amazing people, some are evil jerks, and most are somewhere in between. So a couple of ideas:
1) One of the ideas I liked best from “Take This Bread” by Sara Miles (recommended by a few others) is to have the people participating in the lunches help in the prep/clean-up/cooking/etc. As she pointed out, if you’re on the bottom rungs of society you’re always receiving and never get the opportunity to give. If BF has been doing this ministry long enough that you have a pattern (“seeing 100 people come through in 90 min is not unusual”), then you probably have some frequent flyers who would be willing to step in and help out. Not only does this give everyone a chance to contribute, but it also helps distribute the workload in a way that makes the ministry more sustainable long-term (my church has a soup kitchen, and it’s hard to find volunteers because it meets in the middle of the day, but having some of the people that would be there anyway is a way to make it easier to maintain), AND it helps out if you have problems come up with the really small number of people that would be jerks about it, i.e. someone who uses the neutral zone of your weekly lunch as a place to set up drug deals or something. Not that I’m thinking that’s likely, because the VAST majority of people who need a lunch like this aren’t going to be making that kind of bad life choice, but if you have someone on your team who can recognize it because they have the kind of street smarts that it’s easier to develop on the streets than in a comfortable life in your house, then they can help you recognize and face such problems. And if everyone is helping, AND if everyone is eating together (including the members of your church), then it sets up much less of the “We good people are helping you poor unfortunate ones, aren’t we great and aren’t you thankful?” dynamic, since everyone is helping and everyone is eating. Don’t know how that would work out for BF’s ministry, but just a thought.
2) I have seen that sometimes people object to ministries like this because they are bigoted jerks, but sometimes they have a legitimate reason to be concerned. Not to say that “Margaret” doesn’t need to be confronted (in whichever of the above fashions works best for you and/or BF and/or priest) for calling other people disgusting; that is wrong and not Christ-like and not okay. On the other hand, if someone (not saying this has to be you; BF or the priest might be better options, but an idea) could talk to Margaret and see why she’s concerned, that might help things as well. It’s a legitimate concern for someone to worry that drug needles will be left around in a playground area, for example, and while there’s a certain amount of inherent prejudice in assuming that someone homeless is of COURSE going to be on drugs, it might be helpful to say, “We’re always going to make sure we clean up the area after everyone leaves.” Or one of the earlier posters talked about a situation where the older and more frail women of the congregation felt threatened by some of the slightly out-of-control visitors with mental health issues; if “Bessie” is thinking about getting involved but is afraid of this, find a way to make sure she’s safe. And so on.
LW, good luck in this amazing ministry! I love the conversation here, so I’ll just try to add a few new points.
Could your church get anywhere by discussing the Oxford Movement, where Anglican priests out of favor for their dedication to high liturgy were assigned to slums, and they created beautiful, holy experiences (and Christian Socialism) to their downtrodden neighbors? (What views of charity, empathy, incarnation, class, and the nature of God were at work there? How about today???)
Significant parts of shared identity in denominational churches are signaled by in-jokes (whether about drinking sherry or lemonade) and surface familiarity (same cranberry colored hymnal or brief statement of faith or whatever other shibboleth). This means the traditional congregants and the new folks are going to lack common ground. (I believe it’s still a duty for the members to reach out and welcome everyone, let alone not to scorn them–but in many churches I have visited very few people do talk to a visitor.)
Temperance mentioned a friend who helps the homeless with a behind-the-scenes task. It’s possible that ancillary tasks that members could take home could build buy-in and create meaning in their lives. E.g. church ministries around making scarves, blankets, mending donated clothes, and coordinating pickup of day-old bread from participating bakeries have been very meaningful to retirees I know.
Finally, a story: I once lived in a neighborhood where the local church was a special ministry to the formerly incarcerated and their families. Attending there was eye-opening and faith-changing. It was also awkward and did not meet some of my spiritual needs. It takes more maturity than I had to be able to share joys and concerns with others when we often dealt with very different levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But just like one mustn’t compare levels of oppression, things that make one person suffer are generally as worthy of prayer as things that make another person suffer. (Not an exact parallel–I was a newcomer who chose to attend a very specific ministry; I was warmly welcomed, but I felt an obligation not to appropriate that space.)
I really don’t know how to deal with the people indirectly expressing such ugly sentiments, nor with those directly opposing this ministry. But perhaps their pew mates would benefit from working through some of the stuff above.
I think commenters have pretty much covered everything for the immediate issue at hand, so I just want to give a book recommendation for further thought. Specifically, the woman saying “This is disgusting” reminded me of Richard Beck’s book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. Beck is a psychology professor who does a lot of thinking and blogging on theological things informed by psychology. The blurb says it better than I can:
I think it’s a great book for thinking about the psychological reality of purity/disgust language vs. the language of hospitality and how it shapes our habits of inclusion or exclusion.
My mom is like this. When I try to understand her visceral reaction, I remember that she grew up in a culture where etiquette and class standing were equated with morality. She literally did not understand that people were not being RUDE to her by being disheveled in appearance or smelling badly. The same way her ugly, off-the-rack clothes were not deliberately donned to offend the sensibilities of the class above her own. Human beings have a really strong tendency to equate their aesthetics with their ethics. ESPECIALLY when they are unused to diverse groups of people, whose backgrounds, circumstances, and sensibilities do not necessarily match their own.
It is a very human failing that we all get from time to time when we kind of stick to our own and go on the assumption that everyone is like us. If you only interact with your own close-knit tribe, the golden rule is pretty easy to enact as a global ethic, because doing what you would like (or feel is polite or find pleasing) is exactly what you should do unto others. But if everybody’s all different and belonging to different tribes, it’s a much more involved task to be good to people. And for folks who lived most of their lives with their in-group, this could be a confusing, frightening, and unwelcome new burden quite late in life.
Those of us who were to the manor born of weird have always been accommodating the fact that other people are not like us and may require some translation. It’s challenging, but we know that’s what we gotta do to be good to folks, even if we kinda decide we’re going to suck at it today. Or most of the time. Or forever.
It is a brand of privileged distress, I think. And they need to figure out, perhaps with help, who moved the cheese.
Everyone who’s saying “talk to the pastor about it” obviously has no idea that these biddies are probably shitting on the pastor, too.
I mean, it might be nice to talk to the pastor about it, because your pastor will probably tell you you’re doing great stuff and they’re sorry people are jerks. It might even be helpful for them to hear themselves say it.
But y’all, get real. Being a pastor does not automagically mean everyone listens to you.
Pastor of a different but similar denomination here (we’re the less progressive, less likely to know a thurible when we see one, but not entirely unrelated first cousins to you all). LW, I am glad to hear of what you and your bf are doing. I am so glad you have found a place to be part of a community of faith. And I am also glad because it sounds like you can see that this is a symptom of this particular community acting out because the assumed status quo for How Things Are Done has changed. The change and growth are good things! But they (can and often do) hurt…pretty much everyone in some way. Sometimes it’s challenging expectations and pointing out short comings or fears that hurts, sometimes it’s the people being challenged lashing out at who they see as the cause for their hurts that causes the pain. Made extra tough to respond to because they are people you chose to be in community with, knowing that things wouldn’t be perfect all the time. So not only are these ladies hurting the people they are talking about and the ministry efforts with their comments, but they are hurting you as well.
The Why behind the ugly things people say (and when they say them) is complicated and it’s not unwise to choose your battles. There are lots of good thought about how to engage above.
That said, it might be good to have a conversation with your boyfriend about how you both are going to respond to people criticizing his ministry, if you haven’t done this already. Your priest might be a good resource (or have one to recommend) for this. You might want to think about how your are supporting each other in this, as well as how you are supporting the participants in his ministry.
There is a terrific book called “Antagonists in the Church” by Kenneth C. Haugck that LW should consider reading. It’s especially geared towards those in leadership positions.
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