By Norris Burkes Mar 20, 2016
I was in fifth grade in 1968 when my brother, Milton, ran from our bedroom declaring a most disturbing find.
“We were robbed!” he said.
Milton was holding our piggy bank upside down, emptied of its $35, drained of our summer dream to buy Radio Shack’s 3-channeled, TRC13 walkie-talkies.
“But how? Who?” I asked. “We had it hidden so well.”
Aloud, I rounded up the usual suspects. Did our big sister take the money? Maybe our friends Bobby or Jerry from across the street robbed us. Perhaps our mother “borrowed” it?
“Nope,” said Milton. “It was Geoffrey.”
“No,” I argued. “It can’t be Geoffrey.”
There was no way it was Geoffrey. It just couldn’t be. I needed him to be good. I needed him to be a friend.
For you see, he was my first black friend. His family was the first black family on our street. Including him, there were six other black children in our school, bussed across the freeway for integration.
When I accused my brother of racism, he wove a circumstantial argument. Geoffrey was playing in our room the previous week when a request from our dad momentarily left our friend alone.
Milton insisted that meant Geoffrey had our money and we must tell his parents. I claimed that this would only embarrass our families if he wrongly accused Geoffrey.
Nevertheless, Milton seemed ready to accuse our friend, so I enlisted my father’s help to stop him. Dad sided with me and told Milton not to bring unproven suspicions.
Milton was quiet for a week until deciding to act unilaterally. Walking past Geoffrey’s house after school, my brother saw the suspect’s father in his front yard and stopped to recount his version of the story.
When he finished, the man promised Milton he’d ask his son about it.
Later that evening, as our family finished supper, someone knocked on our front door. My father opened the door to meet Geoffrey and his dad.
“My son has something he needs to tell your sons.”
Geoffrey was hesitant, so his father prompted him.
“Give these boys back their money,” his dad commanded. Geoffrey apologized and handed over the money.
Later that night, my disappointment set it. I realized how I’d wanted Geoffrey to be good simply because he was black. Milton seemed to start his assumptions with the fact Geoffrey was black.
Neither theory was correct. Geoffrey wasn’t good because of his skin color nor was he bad because of it. He was just a regular kid who’d made a mistake.
Prejudging someone to be bad or even declaring them to be good based on genetic traits will always be problematic. Yet these days, there are a lot of folks who are doing just that. They judge potential immigrants by their skin color or religion and seek to deny them a life safe from persecution and poverty.
The Judeo-Christian principles I learned in fifth-grade Sunday school, the same ones inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, call for people of faith to judge every person individually and allow each person a chance to demonstrate who they are.
And maybe even to grant them a second chance to break out of the stereotypes that bind them.
At least that’s what my brother and I did when we shook Geoffrey’s hand at our front door, forgiving him as easily as kids often do.
Eventually Milton and I bought those shiny Radio Shack walkie-talkies. We used them to reopen a much clearer channel of communication with a friend, talking to Geoffrey long after our parents thought we were in bed.
– Email your thoughts to [email protected] or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain, or call 843-608-9715. Norris Burkes is looking for speaking venues in the Lakeland area during September 2016. If you would like to host him in your church healthcare organization or community event, please email him at [email protected]