Cultivated Ignorance

Cultivated Ignorance May 4, 2023

After starting my deconstruction, I began writing about all the things I was discovering. but even though I was uncovering gaps in my understanding of racial issues and queer concerns, I hesitated to put pen to paper much mainly because I  realized my understanding was limited. After I gained some initial knowledge from some of the stories I heard, in Desert Sanctuary,  I came out swinging and I tried to advocate for both of these communities.

Spurred by George Floyd’s murder by police, I took a train from Philadelphia to Washington DC, while I was working in Pennsylvania. While there, I walked in two Black Lives matter rallies and started to get more vocal on social media. I lost a lot of friends.  Some of them just silently walked away and some of them confronted me directly.  Because I was in the middle of a deconstruction, it didn’t bother me much because I realized that ALL my new understandings made some of my old tribes uncomfortable.

Whatever I encountered, caused me to reflect on my understanding. I realized that I was upset about the right thing, but I didn’t have enough understanding to communicate it well in writing. To a large degree I still feel this way, but I’m not going to let it stop me from moving forward. My ignorance is ultimately my problem. 

So just like before, allow me to tell my story that hopefully will resonate with you and you can identify with where I am now.

I wore black face in a Junior/Senior play,  but that is not where my story begins. My earliest memories are from kindergarten and first grade where I attended a school that had forced integration. Every day, buses would show up with people that looked differently than me. I don’t remember it being an issue. It was somewhere around 1970, and I just remember that there was some negative energy about the issue, but I don’t recall anything specific. 

At my next school, in second grade, we lived closer to the inner city. We went to an elementary school that was very diverse. My first crush was on a Native American Girl there, and my best friends were an Irish kid that looks like Howdy Doody and a black kid that could outrun all the fourth graders. When the older children would try to pick on us, he would slap them and then run until the recess bell rang.  He also wore ”product” in his hair that smelled like strawberries.

But, in third grade, we migrated back to the suburbs. The neighborhood was mostly White, especially when we started attending private school in 4th grade.  It was the conservative, evangelical school where I learned to steal and cuss and chew tobacco. I’m pretty sure it’s also where I picked up some bad habits like using the n-word and telling jokes about gay and black people.

In my book, Apparent Faith, I dealt with some topics like tribalism, nationalism and how Christianity united with the Empire. In these discussions, the idea of the “other” emerges. It is really insidious how Southerners and Evangelicals sometimes treat the other. It can’t be called anything but hate; but it has just enough phoniness that is considered okay by most people on the inside. Most people that are in this box would proudly say they are not racist,  but their  soft belief is that people that are different are defined as ”other” and they don’t think they have to treat them the same or view them the same as “us.” The other subtle assumption is that they are dangerous and should be feared.

Back to my story. We stayed in that suburb and attended that private Christian School until I went to high school. My dad got a different job in a very rural area and we started blending into that community. The town that we lived in actually had a ”black” section of town, often referred to as “N***** Town. There was only one black kid in our whole school and that was where the English teacher convinced me to wear black face in the Junior/Senior play. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the community expressed displeasure at this and I even invited a couple of the black athletes from a neighboring town to come watch.

When I think about this today, it makes me cry. For years, when I met a black person, I would tell them about my performance and they would change the subject. I saw that same face on a cab driver in DC.  It is a “long suffering,” that I have since noticed on other minority faces, like the Mexican guy who was observing white people marching for Black Lives matter. His face was that same look that seemed to say, “What about us?” or “How long…?”.

In college, my two best friends were a Native American and black guy. But our favorite motto was, “Every day is Christmas” and we rarely talked about anything important, especially racial injustice. I wish they would have told me more stories, and I wish I would have asked better questions. I realize now that it’s not enough just to be seen around people that are different from us. And for now, I will just leave it at that.

My grandpa Joe was a simple guy that coached baseball as a hobby. I know that he did things like getting shoes for the poor kids on his teams and I’m sure he treated them somewhat equally. But, he still called them “colored kids” and he named one of his cows “blackie.”  I think that he loved all of his baseball players, but his conditioning and understanding was that they were different and other. My other grandpa was rather stoic, so I don’t know how he felt about much of anything even though I still feel close to him. He did participate in a fraternity that is known to be unreceptive to people of color. My parents were probably more open to new ideas, since it was the ’70s, but we never had any deep conversations about anything like that.  

My first job, after college, was in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It was totally multicultural and authentically diverse. It was much more clorful and I worked with people from China and Korea, and even,  Pennsylvania. Soon, I would found myself back in church–and of course, it was Conservative and Evangelical and not that diverse at all. The Southern Baptist Convention, that I gravitated towards, generally has very segregated congregations. That shouldn’t be a surprise since they were started so the slave owners would have a place to call home. So, my maturity stalled out for many years. I didn’t tell racially motivated jokes, but I also didn’t progress at all in my understanding. “Love your neighbor” messaging really doesn’t accomplish much when the system we are in doesn’t honor that pursuit. Even in the late 90s, my Director of Missions would brag about having a Spanish church or a Chinese church or several Black churches, But, there was very little interest in integration or real diversity. Someone once said, “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”

After I started my deconstruction, when I stopped defending all of my old beliefs, the world opened up to me and I started investigating everything. Before I stepped down from the church I pastored, I wrestled with some of these issues in the pulpit. These discussion got very little response from the chosen frozen but they were helpful for me. I was starting to ask the right questions and actually listening to what people said. 

We interviewed several people, on The Desert Sanctuary podcast, and mostly tried to listen to what they said. One of these was a group of four black people. We were determined to listen to them, and two hours later, we were “wrecked” by their testimony. I read some books that were, at first, hard to understand and hard to relate to. But slowly I started growing and I began to understand better.

I think it is important to understand the issue of racism as a systemic problem. It is in our DNA. It is in our rituals and our ways of doing things and even in our language. It involves the prison systems, the “War on Drugs,” and our fears.

May we all keep evolving and asking questions and refusing to settle for partial solutions or inadequate platitudes. 

It wasn’t uncommon, at the Evangelical, Christian private school,  for my friends and I to call each other ”gay” or “faggot.” The system that we were in didn’t acknowledge any kind of legitimacy to the queer community. But, they didn’t just ignore them, they hated them.  In their minds, it was about the worst thing you could do, and one of the fastest ways to gain a ticket to hell and one of the worst labels you could assign to someone.

Up until college,  I never met a gay person, mostly because no one comes out in those areas. So, when I met some queer people in college, my response was mostly fear related. I just tried to stay away from them. I later found out that my professor was gay, but he would probably never have the courage to admit it in that area. 

Like the racial issue, I don’t think I made any progress in this area for a long time. When I became a pastor, in 1997, I took the injunction to “love your neighbor” pretty seriously, but it took me over a decade to pull back all the layers and genuinely start asking the right questions. This culminated in me wrestling with my feelings about homosexuality from the pulpit, and probably was the beginning of the end of my ministry. They never asked me to leave, but I couldn’t wrestle with the questions, and teach like they wanted me to, at the same time.

I don’t have as many stories about my ignorance of queer people  because the issue  in Evangelical Christianity is so black and white, that they don’t even discuss it. To them, it is the worst thing you can do to love someone of the same sex in that way.  It wasn’t until I broke free from that fear-based, high control  religion that I was able to consider the matter carefully and redirect my motivations. The question changed from, “How do we stop this?” to “How can I love them?” and my ignorance began to erode away slowly.

Just Like my feelings about racism, I deeply regret the time that I languished in ignorance and enabled the suffering of others to continue. I try to say this as often as I can:

 “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’m getting better.”

I’m sorry for the little things that I did that were a part of enabling racism and homophobia to continue. I’m sorry if I passed these things on through my preaching and my reluctance to risk speaking up against these injustices.  I’m sorry that my children probably saw me subtly disparaging these two groups, and I’m glad they didn’t follow my lead. I’m sorry that suffering still continues simply because of ignorance. An advanced society should be better than this already.

Even though I take full responsibility for my ignorance, I also realize that people that preceded me promoted this ignorance by not saying anything. They didn’t model courage and genuine love for people because they let their fear of others and their fellow tribe members dominate their actions.

One of the realities of evolving is that it is a continual process. New understanding not only helps us navigate better, it also reveals how much we still don’t know. But if we give up the temptation to believe we have all the answers, we will stay inquisitive and we will ask better questions next time. We can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. But we also can’t give up just because it’s difficult.

I want to have that long-suffering look that I saw in the people I  met in Washington DC. I don’t want queer people and people of color to admire me.  I want to be able to respect myself, that even though I am late to the game, I can finish strong and love my neighbor as myself. 

Be where you are,

Be who you are,

Karl Forehand

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