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By Father Chris Kuhn

Pastor, St. Mary Parish, Elgin, IL

Let me begin by sharing that my grandfather, Jimmy Burke, grew up outside of Joliet, IL. He had the hard experience of his father walking out on the family during his eighth grade year – this would have been around 1907 or so. His mother had all she could handle just taking care of them and taking small jobs to earn money.

Soon Jimmy was forced to leave school and earn money for the family.

Begging for food

I mention our family story because during this crisis he and his sisters would beg for food from the black Pullman porters on the trains that went nearby their home. They would accept any scraps or uneaten food left over from the restaurant cars.

My grandfather never forgot the kindness of those black porters riding the Pullman cars.

Also, while on the railroad tracks, he and his sisters would pick up coal that had fallen from the steam engines. They would use this coal at home for heat and cooking. But there were police employed to keep them away from the tracks.

When he and his siblings were caught collecting coal, they suffered abuse and beatings from the police, who were trying to teach them a lesson of staying away from the train tracks and the Pullman cars.

Two lessons remembered

My grandfather Jimmy developed a lifelong dislike of police officers of any kind ever after this time in his life. He would even get into fights with them or try to lose them out in Iowa where he later lived. My mother said that several times he would have gone to jail were it not for his little daughter Kathye -- my mother-- sitting on the front seat next to him.

He even asked that no police direct traffic for his funeral!

This shows me that even good people can develop a great anger and distrust of the police after some bad experiences. I can imagine my grandfather acting in just the same way as some of the young black men we hear about on the news.

Jimmy grew up to become a small businessman in Des Moines, IA. There he owned a furniture business. Remembering the kindness of the black Pullman porters, he made a point of seeking out and hiring young black men to work in his furniture business.

My mother remembers the young black men joining them for dinner and becoming part of the family. One especially treasured black employee named Harvey Rucker became especially close, and my grandfather was pleased to employ him and even help him go to college.

My mother tells me that Jimmy Burke lost business because he insisted on employing black men at his business.

My own lesson

From personal experience, one especially traumatic memory comes to mind from when I was a child. It was the most trouble I ever got into in my life!

One of my friends – also named Chris -- had some very racist attitudes even as a child. We were walking in the neighborhood one day when my friend noticed a black man doing gardening at one of the homes. He started mouthing off to him and using insulting language. I remember being petrified!!

Sadly, I just stood there in shock and full of fright. Finally, when the man took full attention of us, he set down his gardening tools and took a step toward us. We ran for it.

In fact, we ran directly to my home, only a block away. Still in shock, I heard the doorbell ring and my mother Kathye, answering the door. The black gardener had followed us to my home and was bold enough, and upset enough, to ring the doorbell.

Needless to say, my mother, Jimmy Burke’s daughter, was absolutely humiliated and appalled by our actions.

Even though I had never said a word, she was rightfully angry that I had done nothing to stop my friend from mouthing off and insulting the man. She rightfully pointed out that I should have apologized to the man immediately and done the best I could to make amends.

Just as guilty

I was just as guilty in her mind as if I had done the mouthing off and insulting myself.

Never before or after, has my mother had such heated and disappointed tones and words for me -- and severe punishment, I might add.

One thing we did was walk over to the man who was still working in the neighborhood, and she had me apologize in person to him. For a second time, I experienced the disappointment of an adult, with added pain for the injury of racism done by two children toward an adult. I remember him being very kind but firm with me. He certainly saw this as a teaching moment.

And I learned from it.

This experience and my family history certainly shape my thoughts today. My grandfather was progressive. He sought out and hired young black men to work for him. He took a stand against racism and was even willing to lose business because of that stand.

My grandfather was motivated by gratitude and a sense of justice, a wanting to give back, if you will. He wanted his family to experience the goodness of black people and have a chance to get to know some of them. Those changes arose at the family dinner table, as well as in his furniture store where this might have been one of the few times people of different races interacted.

I am proud of my grandfather, Jimmy Burke! For myself, looking back at my own childhood experience that I related – it is not enough to have done nothing in the face of racism. My mother was right to have me apologize for having done nothing to stop my childhood friend’s behavior or for my own silence after having witnessed and experienced it.

Bearing God’s image

One point I find valuable is a statement made by a brother priest from Louisiana, whose father is a retired black police officer and his mother is white. I am sorry I forget his name, but the priest said: “We recognize that every person, regardless of race, bears the image of God”.

This is so important to remember and helps us to be mindful of the call of God and how we are to treat our neighbor – of whatever race! 

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Editor’s note: We’re grateful for Fr. Kuhn sharing his moving story. It leaves each of us to consider two questions:

  • What lessons did you learn in childhood that helped shape you -- and are there any you’d be better off rising above now that you’re all grown up?
  • What lessons are you teaching others, both inadvertently and intentionally, that could well stick with them for the rest of their lives – and should you accentuate or abandon any of them in the best interests of everyone?

In times of crisis, it’s a natural thing to close up, get defensive and try to protect ourselves.

But it’s a better thing to open up, take an honest inventory of ourselves, and resolve to do our best going forward to help build the Kingdom that God wants us all to know, to share and to enjoy.

Happy building, neighbor.

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