I Want to See if Investing in Community Can Trump Our President

My Unitarian Universalist community is invested in social justice. How much can I afford to invest financially?

Photo credit: Infrogmation of New Orleans, CC BY 2.0.

A week after the inauguration, I found myself somewhere I hadn’t been in a long time: at a religious service, of my own volition. Like many of us, I was struggling with the daily avalanche of bad news. Observing how Donald Trump and his administration were using the institutional power of the presidency, I felt pulled to align myself with a different institution, one that represents community and social justice and hope. I’ve been back most weekends since.

It took a few weeks to get familiar with the Unitarian Universalist (UU) community’s norms and etiquette: the order of service, when to sit and when to stand, even where to park. Then there’s the collection basket to consider.

As a kid, I attended religious services — specifically, Catholic Mass — regularly. Each week, my mom dutifully wrote a check, sealed it in the correct pre-printed envelope, and handed it to my brother or me to drop in the collection basket. I never thought, or figured it was my place, to ask about the amount on the check or my mom’s feelings about writing it. During my very occasional attendance of religious services as an adult, I’ve either thrown a small bill into the collection basket or skipped it entirely.

And that’s what I’ve done so far at the UU services. I’ve pulled my donations from whatever is left of my “chuckle fund,” my weekly cash allowance of purely discretionary money that I keep in a separate envelope in my wallet. As I consider formalizing my relationship with this community, I want to become more strategic, or at least more thoughtful, about my financial contribution.

From what I can tell, there are two main pipelines of financial support: a monthly pledge done online or through the mail and a weekly collection during services. The weekly collection is split 50/50 between the UU congregation and a local nonprofit. Recent nonprofits have included an animal sanctuary and my state’s branch of Planned Parenthood (the latter of which blew my Catholicism-accustomed mind in the best way possible).

It’s difficult to assign a dollar amount to what the UU community has given me so far. There’s the friendly greetings and the thoughtful message and the consistently excellent music. There’s the blossoming curiosity of exploring something new and the lift in my anxiety that lasts at least a couple hours after service ends. The first time I attended, the organ player hit his first chord, my eyes welled up with tears, and I knew I was where I needed to be. How do you put a dollar value on that?

Of course, it’s not all about me. (The point of going, really, is that it’s not about me.) Whether or not I become a pledged member, I believe the congregation is worth supporting. At a very practical level, there’s a lot of real estate to maintain: a long, curving building with a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed meeting house at one end and a LEED Gold Certified auditorium at the other. The congregation also sponsors a lot of social justice work, and the goal of this year’s giving campaign was to expand the social justice coordinator into a full-time position.

Fortunately, those clever UUs (or their consultants) have put together a surprisingly straightforward guide for figuring how much to give. Users of The Suggested Fair-Share Contribution Guide start by determining their adjusted monthly income. The next step is to reflect on your level of commitment to the organization. Each level is associated with a percentage range. Do some multiplication, or reference a chart, and arrive at your number. While this approach is less straightforward than tithing, I think it’s more realistic and possibly more thoughtful. Doing the math, pledging $60/month, plus planning to throw a little more in the collection basket each week, seems fair.

But I don’t think I’m ready to take that step yet. While I’ve been attending consistently, it’s only been two months. (Though, wow, what a long two months.) While weighing formal membership, my goal is to be more intentional about my weekly giving. I’ll make sure there’s a $20 bill in my wallet each week, which will fall into my budget line for donations and gifts. And I’ll keep connecting and considering and showing up.

Lindsay Woodbridge has successfully figured out where to park.

This story is part of The Billfold’s I Want It Now series.