By Sophie Hatcher-Peters
I grew up in North Carolina as a preacher’s kid. My maternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in the bible belt, and my mother is an ordained minister and religious studies professor. I was raised in a small, predominantly white Presbyterian church – I remember being a child, getting ready for church in dresses with zippers I couldn’t reach, tights that were unbearably itchy, and patent leather shoes that I rapidly scuffed. When I was in middle school, my family moved out of our cookie-cutter house in the suburbs and into an ostentatious house in the middle of downtown. Alongside the physical move, many other class indicators in my life shifted at the time, including our church. We left our former church of around 400 members for a new church in our new neighborhood.
Still Presbyterian, and still predominantly white, our current church has over 2,500 members, and eight buildings. If you were to visit the church’s website, you would be greeted by a slideshow of pictures – opening with a picture of the empty sanctuary (styled after European cathedrals), quickly followed by a picture of a white woman gardening with Black and brown kids. The display concludes with two pictures of the white congregation in their Sunday best – suits and dresses that reflect their wealth. The congregation is made up of people from similar class backgrounds to my own, with most adults employed in high paying professions, or comfortably retired. After moving churches, I felt disconnected and isolated from many of the people around me. Attending Sunday school, services, and youth group made me uneasy in many ways, and I didn’t fully develop a vocabulary to articulate how and why until I left home and went to school.
In high school, I loudly declared myself an agnostic and stopped participating in youth activities of my families church. I joined two different youth groups at other churches in my town, but could not stand being in my home church community. When I moved across the country to go to college, I focused my education on building frameworks for racial, class, and gender justice. I began to build a vocabulary to describe why I was uncomfortable in my family’s church – white supremacy, classism, purity politics, and white saviorism come to mind. For a space that preached justice, equity, humility, and generosity, I saw none of these values reflected in the people around me, in the lives lived beyond the walls of the church. Whiteness and class are viscerally present in all parts of the church and its congregation, and yet are never discussed.
In the Christian tradition, members of a church are asked to give 10% of their income to the church – a ritual known as tithing. The only times that I remember money being discussed in church – either from the pulpit, or in casual conversation – is during the annual fundraiser. But even then, conversations were shrouded in secrecy. Beyond the standard of 10%, there were no conversations about how much to tithe, or why. Money was and is ungrounded from need, and shrouded in secrecy. The extent of work towards justice in our community was through a monthly ‘pennies for hunger’ campaign, in which members were asked to give their pocket change to the local food bank, and a program to offer free hot dinners twice a week. While we were regularly called to love our neighbor, never was I asked to consider why I, the people I live with, and the people I prayed with have so much more than we need, and so much more than our neighbors. Never was I challenged to consider the ways we could transform our world and community away from charity and towards justice, never asked to consider why we had the power to nourish or starve our neighbors.
The understanding of money as a concept ungrounded from need extends into my nuclear family. My parents give away 10% of their annual income – a decision made from the formula of tithing, not a decision that reflects the excess in our lives. After joining Resource Generation my first year at college, I talked to my parents about increasing the amount of money they move. They were unreceptive to the idea of giving more, and talked to me about tithing as ‘the thing to do’ in the Christian tradition, about how they give a greater percentage than many of their socioeconomic peers. I know both of my parents are moral, caring people, and I know they understand our social context of the world – my mother regularly teaches and writes about US and global wealth inequity. And yet, when it comes to our family finances, I struggle to connect with them and understand their choices, and to demonstrate and hold firm in my own beliefs about wealth redistribution.
This December, I returned to my parents’ home and celebrated Christmas with my family during my school’s winter break. For my family, Christmas is a material manifestation of our class status – the month of December is characterized by a Christmas tree surrounded by presents, a small army of nutcrackers, and a nativity in almost every room. One of our annual traditions is attending church on Christmas Eve – one of my favorite activities as a child. This year, I found it impossible to enjoy the service. Everyone present, including myself, was dressed to the nines in a display of wealth. Stories of Jesus and his family were told throughout the evening, and yet there was no mention of the undocumented community in our town and the increase in ICE violence across the country. The dissonance and disconnect between the stated morals of my church and its actions got under my skin in a big way – my mind raced throughout the service with frustration at the institution, frustration with those around me, frustration at myself in the difference between intentions and actions. The dissonance and disconnect between the ways I am trying to be in the world and the choices of my family and the institutions I am connected to permeated my whole time at home. The impact of redistributing the money I make from working at school pales in comparison to the impact I could have in shifting the way my family, my church, my school engages with wealth redistribution, but I have yet to understand avenues of change. I left this break frustrated and stuck in how little I was able to connect with my family, and with very little insight into how to build a different future – I am hoping to find new ways of communicating and connecting, but unsure how or where to go.
Sophie Hatcher Peters is a current student at a private liberal arts college, and grew up in the upper class.They are a white person, a non-binary person, an older sibling, a lover of creatures, and a student organizer with Resource Generation.