Believe it or not, my first job was not as Rector at St. John the Baptist. In fact, I’ve had many jobs, beginning when I was 14 years old. My first job was as an office clerk at my childhood parish. My priest wanted to help me to earn some spending money during high school and he offered me a part time job answering phones and vacuuming the carpets after services. I also worked as a radio disc jockey and a newspaper reporter. My claim to fame was being (unofficially) the lowest-paid correspondent with a permanent press box seat covering a National Football League team, the then-San Diego Chargers. I also have worked in computer microchip manufacturing, hospitality, and in telemarketing. But every time I moved cities and needed a job, I frequently found myself working retail.

               Once while working retail at a J. C. Penney store, I followed a store policy of checking identification any time a customer was paying with a credit card that did not have a signature on the back. If you have a credit or debit card, then you know the card is technically not to be accepted unless it is signed. Although I followed this policy with every one of my customers, I remember feeling terribly upset when an African American woman asked to speak to my manager and accused me of racism for checking her identification. “I’m not a racist!” I thought. “This has nothing to do with race! I’m following a store policy!” My manager, who was white like me, said that I was following a store policy. She insisted I was not a racist. In fact, she explained, I was in an inter-racial marriage at the time. The woman became increasingly upset with every excuse my manager offered and she eventually stormed off, throwing her merchandise on the counter in disgust. I knew in my heart I was not a racist. Why had this woman accused me of racism? This event took place about 20 years ago. I knew much less then than I do now. I did not have the same life experiences then that I do now. I have learned a lot since then and I now have a much better awareness of what happened that day.

               Along with a number of your Vestry members, I renewed my certification in anti-racism training this past week. General Convention of the Episcopal Church has mandated that everyone in a leadership position in the Church must renew this training on a regular basis. This means I have taken anti-racism training in the past and it means I will take it again in the future. I have learned many things in anti-racism training, and one of the things I have learned is that I will never stop learning. In fact, I have read many, many books about racism and anti-racism. Each time I read a book or an article, or listen to the stories of a person of color, I continue to learn. I do not claim to be an expert about anti-racism and I vow to continue to try to learn.

               My father’s family is from Italy and my mother’s family is from the British Isles. Although at one time Italians and the Irish were not thought of as “white”, these days in the United States, people of European ancestry most often are considered white. While Italians in generations before me might not have considered themselves white, I have never identified as anything other than white. This is true even though I grew up in a majority Latino community. It is true even though I attended a majority Latino elementary school and high school. I did not choose to be white. Being white is not my fault. In fact, it is not inherently bad. But through my studies of anti-racism, my reading of books, and engaging in conversations, I continue to learn that it is my responsibility as a white person to help to dismantle racism. If you are a white person, it is your responsibility to help to dismantle it as well.

Racism is an uncomfortable topic to talk about. It is emotionally charged and frequently misunderstood. Depending on any two people’s personal experiences, they might have totally different understandings about racism and how it harms God’s creation. If not discussed with love and care, people can easily be hurt and the conversation can be completely shut down. It is important to acknowledge the experiences of people of color and to listen to how they have experienced racism in the past. As a white person, I have not experienced racism first hand. It has not affected me directly. While I have indeed witnessed racism, it has never been directed at me. Years later, I discovered by reading a book by Ijeoma Oluo that when a person of color says they are a victim of racism, it is important to listen to that person. The intention is not important. In the incident I mentioned, it was not important that I did not intend my actions to be racist. It was important that the woman felt she was experiencing racism.

You might be asking, “But Fr. Tim, how can this be? If you were simply following a company policy, how could it be?” The answer is complicated. While I did not intend my actions to be racist, and while J. C. Penney did not intend the policy to be racist, it is important to acknowledge that something called systemic racism was at play. Maybe there should have been a sign indicating that credit cards are not accepted if they are not signed. Maybe it should not have been left to the sales staff to enforce such a policy. I don’t know the answer, but I know that I am sorry I hurt this woman and I wish I would have received her story instead of allowing myself to become defensive.

If you, like me, identify as white, then it is crucial for us to put down our defenses. We must always separate behaviors from the person. I am not a racist. In my heart, I do not believe that anyone at St. John’s is a racist. However, that does not mean that I do not from time to time do things or say things that are racist in nature. I might not do them on purpose, and I might not even be aware of them. But it doesn’t mean I don’t do them. It does mean I will continue to try to learn. And it means when I know better, I will be able to do better.

As Christians, we must continue to extend grace to ourselves and to each other. This means we also must commit to continue to learn. We are called to be like Jesus. Yet we know we never will attain his level of perfection. That doesn’t mean we give up on trying. In a similar way, we commit to loving our neighbors as best as possible. And when we stumble, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. I am proud of our St. John’s community because of our shared commitment to fight racism in all its forms. I believe St. John’s to be quite progressive and more anti-racist than many other congregations. Let’s work to make a commitment to continue to aspire toward perfection in this area, even if we know we likely will never get there.

Respect the Dignity of Every Human Person