Where were you when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? We have seen that question asked over and over again for those of us who are old enough to remember it. That was a big event in our nation’s history. In our own lives events might not be so monumental but yet they stand out as pivotal times in our lives that propel change. Each of us has those moments and these are mine.
I remember somewhere around seven to eight years ago, going to Grandparent day at my grandson’s school located in a suburb of a large city. Sitting in his classroom I took note of the fact that the class was composed of many different races. In fact, I remember thinking my grandson was almost a minority in this classroom. This was a shock for this white woman from a small community in Southern Minnesota. I made sure I did not mention my observations to my grandson as he was oblivious to all of this. He hadn’t yet been made aware of the differences. All he knew was that they were his friends.
I remember attending a band concert at my granddaughter’s school during the time when suspicion and fear of Somali immigrants were high. I walked past a Somali woman with her head covered in her hijab and I too felt fear and suspicions because of what I had heard. I noticed there were more Somali parents with their children in my granddaughter’s school. Those from the community didn’t give them a second glance because they knew them and that was their normal, but I must admit because of all the attention by media and government, misinformation and haters, and no experience knowing a Somalian, I was afraid. Would we be in danger during the concert? I remember thinking I didn’t have this problem back home in my community. I felt comfortable and safe there.
I remember the first time I came in contact with a gay person. He was a friend of ours. We had known him for years but we didn’t know he was gay because he kept it hidden. He finally came out to us. It stands out in my mind that though we knew of this, someone decided they needed to point out to us that our friend was gay. They thought we didn’t know. Though our friend was our age he was also a friend of our daughters, and the person thought we should keep him away from her, and we should stay away too. They knew we wouldn’t want to expose our daughter to those things.
I remember the first time I met a black man. He was the husband of my best girlfriend from high school and they visited our home in our small white community. We didn’t have qualms about meeting him because if my friend could love him we would too, However, we wondered how our three-years-old and six years old would react and if they would say anything. They didn’t notice his skin was another color.
I remember the first time I met a Morman. The family moved to town and the husband worked with my husband. I was told by many to stay away from them because they would try to convert us to their ways. Some people shunned them. We gained loving friends and surrogate grandparents for our kids and religion was never talked about, though one of them was a leader in their church. Unless we asked a question they didn’t try to convert us to anything. They just loved us as family and spent many hours at services at our church supporting my children.
I remember when my relatives came to visit and stay for a few days when I was a teenager. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The flag went up with many of my parents friends. And my church at that time had taught me to be wary of the evil they may teach. I had already met them from a previous trip to visit them in California so all I knew was the love and caring of family, no matter the difference in religion.
I remember the first time I met a Transgender person. I knew them all their lives, however, I didn’t meet them as who they were inside until the last year because they hid it out of their fear of how we would react. They were family and my reaction when I finally knew, was love.
I wasn’t always tolerant of any of this. I would say in the past ten years I have evolved after a long hard look at myself, what I learned as a child, what I learned as an adult, and what ideals were actually chosen by me to believe, or what was planted in my head without thought and question and that included my religion and my belief in God.
I grew up in a religion that told you to believe and not question. I did that but was always silently not quite sure about what I was being taught. I came from a family where my mom was Catholic and my dad was Protestant. I was told I would go to hell if I believed or changed religions. I was never allowed to go to my dad’s church because it was a sin. We could go for the fabulous church dinners but never for the services. I don’t remember how we worked out attending funerals because we did do that when relatives on my dad’s side died. I wondered how all my relatives on my dad’s side could be going to hell because they were such good people. I wondered in my later years why would my mother marry someone she knew was going to hell because she really believed that. I finally did attend my dad’s church, for his funeral. How sad is it I missed all the years I could have attended church with him when he was alive if it wouldn’t have been for those preconceived edicts from my church at the time? It makes me very sad to think of that.
When I finally changed religions, my mother, to the day she died, told me I would go to hell and when she was in her dementia state she told me she should have disowned me when I changed religions.
I had a good reason for changing. I wanted to go to church as a family and when we got married the priest that presided at our wedding told my husband two things that really stood out during our counseling. The first was that he shouldn’t join the church because they had enough bad Catholics, and the second was that the Vikings were ***** rich and I can’t mention the racial slur here. That cemented my decision. I didn’t feel a man of God should speak that way of another race, or without knowing my husband, make the judgment that he would be a bad Catholic as I knew how strong my husband’s faith was having been through what he had been through in Viet Nam and being raised by a mother who had a strong faith.
I wish I could say that was the moment when I started to question what I totally believed in my life, but it wasn’t the aha moment you might think. It is moments over the years of questioning, experiences, and taking a hard look at myself that has gotten me to old age, and not without many mistakes and acts of prejudice that I didn’t think of as prejudice, and am ashamed of today.
I remember a former Catholic school member who became involved in a cult. This was one aha moment that began my questioning. He came to speak at my church to give us a little parenting advice. At that time I had two young children. When I heard him speak I asked him what I could do to protect my children. He answered, “Make sure they know what they believe and why they believe it.” I know I thought to myself, how can I teach them that when I don’t know what I believe totally either.
Life continued on and I worked on that advice but I switched to prejudice on a different front. If my children friended someone who didn’t have a good reputation I would not let them hang out. I will tell you now that it is the worst advice I could have given my children. Instead I should have welcomed those kids into my home and got to know them. You see, I listened to what everyone else was saying without giving them a chance and not making up my own mind. I am ashamed of that reaction and I try to do better now.
I began to notice in small ways the way prejudice seeps into our lives, even tiny little nudges in my own life.
I remember being told by someone I loved like a daughter, when she found a new religion, that she could no longer be in touch with me because I didn’t believe like she did. That was thirty years ago and to this day we have no contact, though I have tried.
I remember being told by a church council member when I gave an opinion on a decision waiting to be made to allow an LBGTQ support group to meet at our church, that I didn’t give enough money to our church to have my opinion count. My opinion was that if people felt the need for this group we should provide a place, but others did not feel that way and it was denied.
Recently a friend was invited to a girl’s get together. When asked if she could bring me she was told I wouldn’t fit in. I suspect because of my views on many of these subjects along with politics or maybe they no longer like me as a person because I do state my opinions and do not go along with the crowd.
I remember a letter I received from a reader when I started my column telling me how ugly I was and how I was ugly as a child and that I never had any friends. I kept the letter to remind me to try and never be like that.
In no way have I experienced what other friends and family have experienced because of their race, gender, or religious affiliation. In our culture, we seem to overlook the little slights that are there every day and accept them without thought. Little judgements in our own lives that are directed at us or those we throw out to others in the world erroneously that may pave the way for bigger ones
You might now be wondering or saying, “Get to the point.” It is this. I am a sum total of the parts of my past. I had prejudices I didn’t know I had until I was confronted with them. I have prejudices that are still there but I don’t see, especially if I don’t question what I am feeling or where those feelings about others or events came from, or why I make decisions that affect others’ lives.
I thought I knew what I knew until I didn’t, until life and experiences changed my perspective. I would have missed wonderful,caring relationships if I wouldn’t have been confronted with issues I was uncomfortable with, never given them a chance, and shown a different perspective.
This is my story and why what I believed has evolved over the years. I can’t imagine what life would feel like now if I hadn’t questioned, had held on to my rigid views, and boxed myself into a tiny world where I stayed in my comfort zone and there was no growth.
I can only hope that I can keep growing and learning no matter how old I become. I can only hope I still work on those prejudices I have buried inside of me, some that I see, acknowledge, and are working on, and others that will pop up as the world keeps changing. I admit I still judge harshly especially when it comes to hate and discrimination. When I feel judged by others I judge them back. I am a reactor and that is my first reaction. I boycott establishments where I feel employees don’t show respect for others by not wearing masks. I stay away from venues where I feel there is more judgment than welcome. So I too am guilty of the same thing I accuse others of. I know it’s not right but those human emotions are right there under the surface ready to rise up at any moment.
There is not an easy answer for me. Perhaps as in other instances that I mentioned, my perspective will change because of experiences as I will keep questioning and searching, and looking inside of myself to know what I believe and why I believe it.
I am not trying to change your mind on anything here, just sharing my story in the hope that during these challenging times you remember the words of my old school friend. “Know what you believe and why you believe it.” And also these wise words, The right decision is made out of love, not fear. —spiritual enlightenment