Jerome Burton, a Man with a Pastor’s Heart
We watched as doctors slowly removed the ventilator tube from Rev. Jerome Burton on July 6, 2023, ending a long and hard 42 days during which he had struggled for life in the eighth-floor intensive care unit at Spectrum Health Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Standing around his bed were his wife, Kristin, and a few members of Coit Community Christian Reformed Church, a small, local, multicultural congregation Jerome had served for more than 30 years. Many of us had been in this room several times, praying for Jerome and offering support to Kristin, who had been at her husband’s side every day for well over a month.
After they unhooked the air line, Kristin put her hand on his beating heart. She told him: "I love you; I will always love you, Mr. Burton.” She kissed him, blew a breath into his mouth, and told him to run to Jesus, and then she felt his heart stop, looked up at all of us, and said, “I think his heart stopped; I think he's gone.”
Everyone was then quiet as the sun shone gently into the room through the large window looking out on downtown Grand Rapids and the Coit neighborhood beyond.
As a commissioned pastor, I had worked alongside Jerome for the better part of a decade. I got to know this man who had been born in Selma, Ala., and had led a life filled with addiction and turmoil before becoming an evangelist and pastor more than 30 years ago following the death of his mother.
After a minute or so in that quiet hospital room, I opened the Bible and read one of Jerome’s favorite psalms – one he had recited often during Sunday services at Coit.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures . . .” I read (Ps. 23).
It had been a long and painful process, a vigil containing many ups and downs, that had led Kristin to this grueling place in which, with the support of her sister and a few others, she decided to have the breathing tube removed.
Outside, the world was moving along as it does, oblivious to the tears and sadness that were breaking out in this hospital room. With all of the certainty I have in me, I finished reading words summing up the faith that filled all aspects of Jerome’s long ministry: “‘Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ . . . Amen.”
A little while later, I left along with William Lugrand, an elder at Coit. As we walked toward the parking garage, I turned to William and, feeling a burden beginning to lift, said, “Well, that’s over.” A slender man with the wisdom of many years, William replied simply that our pastor was in heaven now.
Unfortunately, my wife and I had a family vacation planned, so I wasn’t able to attend the service celebrating Jerome’s life, held at 7 p.m., Friday, July 14, at Church of the Servant, a local church that could hold the many people who wanted to attend and pay their respects. I was grateful that the service was livestreamed, and I was able to watch it on the deck of my daughter’s home outside Minneapolis.
The service was led by Rev. Jim Alblas, a good friend who worked closely with Jerome and had even lived with him and his first wife, Vivian, several years ago as he attended Calvin Theological Seminary. Alblas is now the pastor of First Christian Reformed Church in DeMotte, Ind.
“Tonight is a celebration of how God worked powerfully in Pastor Jerome, and how God worked through him to be such a blessing to many people,” said Alblas. “We mourn because we miss him, but we also celebrate Pastor Jerome and are thankful for all of the work he did.”
Much of the service included reflections from friends, colleagues, and Coit members. Standing on the worship platform, they spoke of how Jerome could quote countless Scripture verses by memory, how he worked tirelessly to break down racial barriers in the CRC, and how kind he was and yet could come down hard on a fellow pastor who needed to share a tough situation with his congregation. That pastor said he might have left the ministry if it had not been for Jerome’s telling him he had to share “his sin” with his church.
One of the reflections that stood out strongly for me was written and read by Mindy Hamstra, a longtime member of Coit.
“The thing about my friend and pastor, Pastor Jerome, is that he was always there. He was there at the jail visiting the daughter or nephew or grandson of someone from the congregation or from the neighborhood who may not even have been a member of Coit Church but who had heard that if you ask that pastor to visit your loved one in the jail, he would be there.”
He was there, she added, “to do a funeral for someone’s grandmother even if that person had left the church years ago in a huff.”
Also, Mindy went on, he was there “every week at Coit School for over 20 years, tutoring a child in reading or taking on playground duty over lunch so that a teacher could have a well-deserved break.”
He was there for regular prayer meetings with a range of people; he was there at countless meetings, she said, “to hash out issues of justice for the folks in the Belknap neighborhood, meetings to hold Grand Valley University to their promise of building low-cost housing across from the church, conferences to figure out how to help the CRC to be more welcoming to people of color.”
After highlighting other ways in which he was “there,” Mindy said, “He was there in my own living room two years ago, where I lay on the floor beside the body of my beautiful husband, [Rev. Albert Hamstra, who had died of a heart attack], to comfort me in the horror of my fresh grief.”
Another speaker was Grace Vivita-Mauricea Martin, whom Jerome and his first wife helped raise from her first breath in the hospital. Although he never formally adopted her, Grace said, he was her dad in every possible way.
Rev. Bob Price, who for many years served as a leader in planting churches in the CRC, recalled how during a break that he and Jerome had at a conference, Price suggested they go and play pool.
“He gave me the idea that he had never played pool, and then he ran the table,” said Price, laughing and pretending to shoot a cue stick. “I was blessed to have had him as a companion and colleague. He had such energy, and he was always sharing the Word. He had such joy when he spoke about the Word.”
Alblas gave a sermon in which he compared Jerome to the apostle Paul, who was stopped in his tracks and converted while heading toward Damascus to persecute Christians (Acts 9).
“When you think of Paul’s conversion, it is like the life story of Jerome Burton, who was living only for himself until God took hold of his heart, and he changed,” Alblas said.
That happened to Jerome just after his mother’s death. In his sorrow, Jerome dropped to his knees, and God told him he was living a life “in the far country” full of alcohol and drugs and instances of violence – and, because of that, he was separated from the Lord and was going to die.
“When he heard that voice,” said Alblas, “Jerome was scared, and he received Jesus in his heart and took on the mission to tell everyone about Jesus Christ.”
At the close of the service Kristin Burton spoke about the precious and painful time she had had in the hospital as Jerome, whose lungs had failed, struggled to live.
“For 42 days God allowed me to stand at his bedside to bathe, cleanse, move his limbs, and give him ice when he had a fever,” she said. “I had the chance to speak about life and God’s grace over him.”
One time, she said, when he came out of a coma, Jerome’s eyes seemed to clear, and he seemed to be aware of his surroundings. Kristin rubbed his head, leaned close, and asked him for a kiss. Incredibly, she said, he puckered his lips, and they kissed.
“My husband taught me to be a better person,” she said. “He taught me so many things, especially to be better in ways that were real and genuine. He taught me how to love, and I loved him so much.”
Kristin concluded the service by leading the crowd in a powerful rendition of “Majesty,” one of Jerome’s favorite songs.
“Majesty, worship his majesty,” she sang. “Unto Jesus be all glory, honor, and praise! . . . So exalt, lift up on high the name of Jesus! . . . Magnify, come glorify, Christ Jesus the King! Majesty, worship his majesty – Jesus who died, now glorified, King of all kings!”
It was a moving service that honored a CRC minister who was a leader, a streetwise pastor, a friend to the friendless, and, as I recall, a man who once got a call from someone he didn’t even know. This person was in a local hospital with a family member who was dying.
“She said she heard I was a pastor who would come to the hospital for anyone who needed it,” Jerome told me.
He went to the hospital and ministered to everyone in the room, and, at their request, baptized them all, including the family member who was dying.
That was Jerome – my mentor, my guide, my friend, and the seasoned pastor who told me that I, too, had a pastor’s heart.
He gave me so many gifts that I will spend the rest of my days opening. I’ll miss his smile and laugh, his unmistakable joy over being a man of faith, his passionate preaching, and his ability, in many practical ways, to make Jesus an enduring part of our lives.