The Rev. Jerry True – February 10, 2019

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In the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Recent events in the news have added impetus to the voices calling for a resurgence and furthering of efforts to overcome the racism, prejudice and growing economic inequity which still corrupts, interferes with and impedes true and genuine life, liberty and justice here in America and around the world. Such voices too often fall upon deaf ears. As a child of God living in what is generally seen as a typical male Caucasian body, I admit that at times, my ears have been and are among those deaf ears which serve to aid and abet personal and systemic prejudice and racism. Oh, my offenses may not have been conscious or deliberate, being done or said out of thoughtlessness and/or ignorance, but any such offense, whether intended or not, still stands as a sign and symbol of the racism that has been and still is so pervasive in our American culture and society.
O God, Set us free in the Name of Jesus!

Some offenses in which I may have played a part, have often times been done in an ignorant kind of friendship or uninformed camaraderie that seeks to share or entertain or amuse but lacks the insight and sensitivity needed to understand the sensitivities, nuances and complexities of the feelings of other people.
O God, Set me free in the Name of Jesus!

In November of the year 1962, as a recruit just emerging from my second eight weeks in the United States Army, I was assigned to the 9th Engineer Battalion.
At that time the 9th Engineer Battalion was stationed in Aschaffenburg, West Germany. Assigned to Company C, I came under the jurisdiction of First Sergeant Willard Tillman. First Sergeant Tillman was a big, burly, much respected, kind hearted, jovial and confident man of color. Not too long after I arrived, he apparently took a liking to me and my skill set and had me assigned to be his company clerk. We developed a very pleasant working relationship which soon turned into a really close friendship, replete with stories, humor, shared feelings, hopes and fears and trust.
O God, Set us free in the Name of Jesus!

He was a great story teller and over the course of more than a year working in the same office, he told me many stories of his early life and vividly described adventures. He had grown up in the deep South where life for him was quite different from the kind of life I had known in the suburbs of the small city of Fulton, New York.

I am very hesitant to tell the following story of my first awareness that there were people of differing skin colors in the world. I hesitate because I feel I might be walking among some potential land mines and in danger of stirring offensive memories in some folks. When I was very, very young, my mother used to read me bedtime stories. One of my very favorites was called “Little black Sambo.” I now realize that these tales were predicated on a kind of racism that contributes to the blindness that still causes puzzled faces among many white people. To my young mind, they were stories about a little boy who I thought of as a childhood friend. I never heard of black persons being disparaged or demeaned in our household.

I don’t exactly know my age at the time, but I remember my mother and I taking the bus to the big city of Syracuse, New York to do some shopping. It was the first time I had ever been in a large department store and everything was exciting and new. Suddendly I spotted a black boy about my own age with his mother down at the other end of a long aisle. Filled with excitement, I shouted out, “Mom! Mom! There’s Little Black Sambo! Lets go talk to him!” Filled with embarrassment, Mom hastened to shut me up and hurrying me out of the store, I never got to meet the boy. I was sorely disappointed. I missed my chance to meet someone I thought of as a celebrity and potential friend
.
As a white boy who had never even come close enough to know a person of color until I was about 14 or 15, I remember going once a month to a nearby apple orchard with some local clergy to play a field organ for church services which were offered for the migrant workers who had come to harvest the apples. Upon reflecting on that presumably noble outreach in my later years, in my more cynical moments, I have sometimes wondered if, at least in part, it might have been a more comfortable alternative to inviting the migrant workers to come into town to attend the local churches in which at that time there was no rainbow.
O God, Set us free in the Name of Jesus!

I was in college before I had any close personal friendship with a person of color. He was the one and only such person in the student body of Union College which was an all boys’ school at that time.

Yes, folks, this was the late fifties. Anyway, back to my memories of first sergeant Tillman. I really enjoyed hearing the many stories he told me.
Adopted as a very young child by a white couple whom he called his momma and daddy, I have slowly come to realize that some of the stories that sounded so charming and innocent to me in my naivety at the time were tales that often spoke of indentured servanthood, a lowering of self-esteem and racial condescension. I think I now realize that some of those cute-sounding, seemingly charming and innocent stories he would tell me, to my naïve mind, were at least partly a reaching out in thirst for the affirmation of human dignity that had been so often denied him as a young boy – and as an adult. First Sergeant Tillman was a wise, not well educated but very smart and able noncommissioned officer and leader. I know he now stands in the nearer presence of his God and Savior Jesus Christ.

I no longer will relate any of those stories which I used to share with others out of affection for his memory. Why? Because I have come to recognize that I have been blind to at least some of the sensitivities that they represent and which may bring offense and/or suffering to others in ways in which I may still fail to perceive or understand.
O God, Set us free in the Name of Jesus!

I, too, am considered a minority. I do not fit the traditionally held picture of a typically human male person in step with the majority image. I can and have pretended to be such. Generally speaking in today’s parlance, in my youth and sometimes even in later life, I have spent a lot of time and effort hiding out “in the closet.” I have had one clear advantage over many of the other defined minorities in that I could and did hide who I was. I give daily thanks to Almighty God that one very positive blessing emerging in our present time and culture is a growing awareness, acceptance and support for those who are different.
Different in terms of accepted norms of varying colors, cultures, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations. At least among the majority of people, it seems to me that those things which are used to separate us from one another are becoming identified and sorted out by most people of good will. I think it is in reaction to that enlightenment that a minority among us are fighting for the preservation of the old prejudices, hatreds and obsessions favoring separation that come against the good progress that so many are making or have made. We have come a long way, but let us not lose sight of the fact that we still have a long way to go.
O God, Set us free in the Name of Jesus!

When I was Baptized on Easter Day in 1940, I do not know whether or not my sponsors promised in my name that I would always “respect the dignity of every human being” but as an Episcopal Priest, I have made that vow many, many times in our public reaffirmations of faith. Have I always been faithful to that vow? Well, no, I cannot honestly say so. God knows I’ve tried, but in many cases I have failed. I’ve tried, but you know when that person of questionable parentage cuts in front of you, or tailgates you or blows the horn at you for no apparent reason, sometimes even causing a near accident, I have been known not to have been overly mindful of that person’s personal dignity at that moment.

Our interactions with our sisters and brothers in this world are complex, and I suppose there will always be situations of misunderstanding, thoughtlessness, greed and resentments among us as we continue life on this earth, or at least until Jesus comes again to put things right. The notion of freedom divorced from generosity of spirit and concern and respect for others is no real freedom at all.
O God, Set us free in the Name of Jesus!

I have often wondered; is it a greater wrong to give offense or to take offense? I suppose the answer is situational. I have known some people in this world who seem to rather enjoy taking offense. I do think that an offender can have a slight advantage over one who is habitually offended: An offender who comes to recognize the offense can always make an apology and try to do better, but the one who habitually prefers to take offense is not easily reconciled with a supposed offender.
O God, Set us free in the Name of Jesus!

We all can and must applaud, promote, take part in and support all truth-seeking efforts to bring about perfect justice, liberty and love, but without help from our God, we cannot hope to achieve it alone. I believe that the answer is, as always, Jesus Christ.
Lead us, O Father in the paths of peace.
Without thy guiding hand we go astray,
And doubts appall, and sorrows still increase;
Lead us through Christ, the true and living way

Lead us, O Father, in the paths of right;
Blindly we stumble when we walk alone,
Involved in shadows of a darksome night;
only with thee we journey safely on.

Lead us, O Father, to thy heavenly rest,
However rough and steep the path must be;
Through joy and sorrow, as thou deemest best,
Until our lives are perfected in thee.

O God, Set us free in the Name of Jesus!
Amen.

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