Chaplain Norris Burkes (copy)

Chaplain Norris Burkes. Photo by Wade Spees. June 6, 2014.

You may have seen the news last month about the white woman in Rialto, Calif., who waved at three black women carrying suitcases from a neighbor’s home.

When the women didn’t reciprocate the greeting, the woman called police to report a possible burglary in progress.

Officers arrived to identify the women as legitimate rental guests in the neighborhood home.

I can’t fault the caller’s ridiculous logic because I made a similar report about a neighbor’s home some years back.

Weeks before I purchased my two-story McMansion in 2002, the FBI raided my neighbor’s home and arrested its owner, a Vietnamese man named Jimmy.

After my moving truck arrived, I only knew the current occupant to be a hairdresser with limited English. Her junior high-age sons both played in our swimming pool with my son. However, as the sons aged, their family fights brought frequent visits from police.

Things moved to another level one day when FBI agent Steve Dupray knocked on my door with an IRS agent in tow. They presented their credentials and told me how Jimmy was on trial for robbing several electronics warehouses. When one of his victims died of a heart attack, Jimmy went to prison for 30 years, but Jimmy’s common-law wife remained in the home with his two sons.

Now the IRS was collecting evidence to take the house under the RICO Act. To accomplish that, they needed to stand in my bathtub and take pictures over my neighbor’s fence.

After their photo shoot, they reminded me to report any suspicious activity, and then they left. My mind was a whirl. But watch the house I did.

One afternoon, I came home to see large suitcases being hauled into the home by those I guessed to be Jimmy’s extended family. There were neighborhood rumors that Jimmy had hidden money in the walls, so I assumed they needed suitcases to haul their ill-gotten gain.

I contacted police, and law enforcement swarmed our cul-de-sac again. Soon they had one of the culprits in handcuffs.

An hour later, a knock at the door hinted I was right. Perhaps it was Agent Dupray with my reward.

It wasn’t. It was a young Asian woman from next door.

“May I come in?” she said in accomplished English.

I showed her to a chair, and she quickly challenged why I called the police.

Looking into her cherubic face, I wasn’t sure why I’d called, but I tried to explain my suspicions.

“I think you’re a racist,” she calmly said. “You called because you saw a bunch of Asian people carrying suitcases.”

“N-no,” I stammered.

“Yes!” She insisted. “Those suitcases were carrying the dresses and tuxes for my wedding tomorrow.”

“Then why the arrest?” I dared ask.

“Our best man had an outstanding traffic ticket, so now he can’t be in our wedding.”

She’d hooked my chaplain’s guilt. I’d done scores of weddings, but I had yet to ruin one.

There wasn’t much left to do but profusely apologize and eventually walk her to the door.

I spent several days soul-searching and hand-wringing. Had I been racist?

It’s not a question I can easily answer, then or now.

But I do know it’s a question I continue to face in everyday events. There is no final answer. I must constantly reflect upon my assumptions and prayerfully examine the subtle interpretations of race that I place on people.

Yes, I said prayerfully. Prayerfully, because as the prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out.”

The prophet insists that we must ask God to “search our heart and examine our mind.”

Current events offer us much to reflect on about racism: the border wall, the shooting of unarmed blacks, and even last week’s cancellation of the Rosanne show.

Don’t let the news intimidate you into being silent on the subject. Discuss, search and reflect on the changing meaning of racism and never hesitate to seek God’s help in understanding yourself.

Finally, for those of you who like tidy endings, the IRS took the house and sold it to a wonderful Honduran American. Steve Dupray became a fan of my column and drafted me into the FBI Citizen’s Academy, but that’s a story for another day.

Reach Norris Burkes at, 843-608-9715, or @chaplain