Picture a newcomer in the vestibule of your congregation next Sunday morning. Her clothes are faded, neckline stretched, hair in need of a wash and pulled back in a hasty ponytail. Dragging her hand hither and yon is a six-year-old, jeans ragged at the hems, sneakers that have seen better days, flyaway hair. She’s bubbly, bouncing on the balls of her feet, grinning at everyone, laughing uninhibitedly, excited to go to Religious Education classes and make new friends.
You help them find the other first graders, and her daughter bounces off without a qualm. As you’re walking this newcomer back to the sanctuary, she gestures out the window. “Is it okay if I leave my car there?” You note the blankets hung inside to cover the windows in the back seat and trunk of the wood-paneled station wagon. “It has everything we own in it right now. We’ve been sleeping in the car or in our tent for a few days. I left my husband down in Tennessee,” she explains blandly. “He was abusive.”
Now imagine our newcomer, on a second or third visit, signing her daughter up for Religious Education. When it comes to the registration fee, does the DRE say brightly, “That’s okay, you can volunteer in the program instead!”
Maybe our newcomer would love to share with the Neighboring Faiths class about her childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness, or is a licensed childcare provider excited to volunteer in the nursery. But what if she doesn’t have a skill the congregation needs? What if her car dies? What if she is able to find a minimum wage job and a coworker asks her to cover a Sunday morning shift that would pay for new sneakers for her child? What if she’s just too physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted by Sunday to do anything but listen from the pews? Is there still a place for her daughter in RE?
When UU World asked me if there were “something on my heart” that I would like to put into words for a guest blog post, I sat up straight and said, Yes! The response of my faith community to “Towards a More Inclusive Stewardship” has been gratifying and redemptive, but with an undertone of frustration.
Before my best friend received that stewardship letter (referred to in the UU World article), the fellowship we had grown up in found itself in financial trouble. And yet, my best friend was in crisis: disabled, a single mother, domestic violence survivor, scraping by on public assistance. How could she be expected to contribute volunteer hours equivalent to what her membership cost the church when she couldn’t afford the gas to drive there … and then her van died. All of these barriers were exactly why she needed the support of her faith community, and it was at this same moment, despite the stewardship committee’s best intentions, that she got the message that she was no longer wanted by her childhood fellowship.
By contrast, the happiest I’ve ever seen my best friend as a mother was the brief few years when the Mormon community lifted her up both spiritually and materially, although ideologically she was always a square peg in that round hole. These are the moments that churches are made for—“inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren”—and we failed.
Why do we measure a member’s inherent worth and dignity by what they have to give us as a congregation? I want mine to be a congregation that helps this mother find a place to live and an appropriate means of support, that embraces her daughter in the RE program, that includes them both in the monthly potluck, without asking for anything in return. The irony is that those to whom we give without asking, when eventually they are able to give back, will often prove our most generous, loyal supporters.
I want mine to be the stewardship committee who stands before the congregation and says, “We are a community that gives without reckoning, a tide that lifts all boats regardless of their size, shape or value. Today, if your loch, reservoir or rain barrel is full enough, we invite you to pour back into our safe harbor any bounty you can spare.”
Maryah Converse was raised Unitarian Universalist, and has been a religious education volunteer in two congregations and the Southeastern Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI). She was the Membership and Stewardship Associate at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, where she worked for four years and was an early member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Membership Professionals (UUAMP). She teaches Arabic and English as a Second Language and blogs at bymaryah.wordpress.com.