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Carlotta BurgessCarlotta Burgess

JS: Hello, this is John Stanko back once again, to present to you, whether you’re reading or listening, to one of our Urban Heroes. And these are people who serve, day in and day out, behind the scenes to make our community better. And they may not always get the notoriety we think they deserve, so we decided to do something about that. We therefore established the Urban Heroes program to give honor to whom honor is due. And today I’m honored to have Mrs. Carlotta Burgess with us. Carlotta, welcome to Urban Heroes.

CB: Thank you. Good to be here.

JS: Thank you. Now, tell me a little bit about you. Are you a Pittsburgh lady? Were you born here?

CB: Born and raised in the Pittsburgh area. I was actually born in Wilkinsburg. Went to grade school, high school, and college here. Educated by parochial schools. And married a man from Pittsburgh, and we continued to live here. After getting married, we decided to try and stay in the area so the kids would have their grandparents and family around. We thought that was kind of important.

JS: So, let’s go back to Wilkinsburg. So, born and raised there?

CB: No, born in Wilkinsburg, raised in Pittsburgh. My mother stayed there shortly. I think they lived in an apartment in the beginning and then they bought a house in Pittsburgh.

JS: Got out as quickly as they could… (laughing)

CB: (laughing)

JS: What part of Pittsburgh?

CB: In Homewood and Point Breeze.

JS: So, general vicinity, right around here.

CB: Yes.

JS: And what parochial schools did you go to?

CB: I went to Holy Rosary. I went to Sacred Heart. And then the now defunct Sacred High School, which merged into Oakland Catholic. And I went on to Carlow College.

JS: Now, was your family Catholic?

CB: Yes!

JS: So then they wanted to send you to parochial schools. To make sure you got a good, Catholic education.

CB: Yes.

JS: How was it?

CB: It was… You know, it was okay. I didn’t know any different. I mean, to be honest with you, I liked my education. It was safe, it was comfortable. They were loving Sisters of Saint Joes and Sister Charity nuns. And even to this day after I’ve grown up and different things, my first grade teacher, who was Sister Karina, used to send me little cards. Every little thing she’d see me do, or when I won an award somewhere, she would send me little cards saying, “Keep in touch, take care.” That was nice, that whole community feeling.

And I’m good friends with Father Taylor who’s still at Holy Rosary Church, which was the church where I went. He always laughs and teases me and Ricky, because Ricky went to Holy Rosary School too. And says, “If we didn’t have the chastity vow, you’d probably be over here now in ministry.” (laughing)

JS: (laughing) So you’ve pretty much been lifelong resident of Homewood then, and that general area.

CB: Yes.

JS: So, Sacred Heart was a all-girls school?

CB: It was an all-girl high school. Grade school was coed, but an all girl high school.

JS: How was that experience?

CB: I think it was good. You know when you go to an allgirl high school, you don’t have the bother of trying to impress boys. And I’m a great proponent for segregated high school education. My boys went to Central [Catholic High School]. I just think it takes a lot of other things off the table. You’re focused on your school. You don’t have anything else to do. It helps you to develop as an individual. Just because I went to an all girl high school, however, there were always boys lingering about the perimeter.

JS: Oh, we knew where you were. Sure, we knew where you were. (laughing)

CB: (laughing) Yeah. There were always boys there, but I just think that, especially for girls, I don’t think you have that bother of trying to dumb it down so Johnny will like you. I just think it helps you develop and not to worry so much about what’s going on with other people, especially the opposite sex.

JS: So, tell me about your family.

CB: Both of my parents are now deceased. I have one brother, who is not around. He had some issues. I’m actually raising his son. He came for a weekend visit when his son was 18 months and he is now 22. So his boy is here and is part of our family. He’s wonderful and will be graduating college next year. He’s on the five-year plan.

JS: So were your parents devout Catholic?

CB: No, my mother was Catholic. My father didn’t attend church. My grandmother, my father’s mother, converted to Catholicism, I guess when I was very young, or when my parents were first together. She kind of converted the whole family, from knowing the history of it. And then my mother, being part of the family, got married right out of high school. And her mother was sickly. So, my father’s mother did a lot of mothering for her, and so my mother became Catholic.

We went to church; that’s what we did. My mother went to Holy Rosary. Monsignor Rice was there then, and she worked in CCD. He sent her over to Duquesne to go to college to do some course work. Then she came back and went to CCAC and did some course work there. She worked in the bakery when I was younger, the old A&P bakery. She did that because they did shift work. She could work at night and be home in the daytime. And then my parents bought a tavern, back when I was in 4th grade. They bought a tavern, and then they started doing that business.

JS: In Homewood?

CB: No, in the Lawrenceville area. They had some properties and some things, and they did that.

JS: Hard-working people.

CB: Yeah. They were hard-working.

JS: And they kept the family together.

CB: Kept the family together. You know, stayed together. They did separate. But they never divorced. My mother didn’t really believe in divorce so they separated. There were some issues, and they separated when I was in my freshman year of college.

JS: So did you ever think about leaving the city to go to school? Or was that never really an issue?

CB: Well, yes. I got bribed. I was looking at UCLA. I was looking at the University of California, and I looked at Marquette, and was accepted to both. And my mother told me if I stayed in Pittsburgh, I could stay on campus, and she would buy me a car. So I stayed. (laughing)

JS: (laughing) So did she buy you the car? So she made good on the deal.

CB: Yeah. It didn’t come immediately, but, I got it at Christmas time. She said it was my stay-at-home- Christmas gift, birthday gift, count it whatever you want. that was it.

JS: You must have been a pretty good student if you got into UCLA. They don’t take a lot of out of state students.

CB: I was a decent student, yes.

JS: So you decided to stay home. Could have gone to Duquesne, but you kept with the no coeducation and went to an all-girls.

CB: Well, you know what. To be honest with you, I was looking at Pitt. The Sacred Heart guidance counselor said, “You’re at home with your mom and you are applying late, so why don’t you go to Carlow?” And I went to some summer program they had at Carlow for a couple of weeks. I went to some summer program, and then I wound up going to Carlow. And I went into nursing.

JS: So you went into nursing.

CB: Yes. That was one of the better nursing schools in the area. Back then, at that time. So I went into nursing.

JS: Graduated from Carlow?

CB: Graduated from Carlow.

JS: Did you ever work as a nurse?

CB: Worked as a nurse forever.

JS: Did you really?

CB: Yes. I worked as a nurse. I work as a consultant now, but I worked as a nurse. Initially I was in ICU, the Intensive Care. So I did Surgical Intensive Care for a long time. Surgical Intensive Care for Montefiore, the Veteran’s Hospital, and the old Forbes Metro. I worked full-time. And then when the kids started coming, I switched to part-time. I did do some utilization review for, my husband talked me into going up to Old Livingston Home to volunteer, to do some work to try to help out the community. So I went up there and I worked for a while. So kind of worked and did the utilization review to get their books together so they could get their accreditation back. So I did that for a while.

JS: So you’ve referenced Ricky, and your husband. So, tell us about who that husband, and who that Ricky is.

CB: Rick is my husband. He is the pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church. He’s a professor over at Community College of Allegheny County. And he is a newly elected City Councilman for district nine.

JS: So a teacher, a pastor, and a city councilman.

CB: Yes.

JS: Is he always busy?

CB: Yes.

JS: So even back when you first met him, and got married, he was pretty involved.

CB: He was super involved with the church. He was always really involved with the church. The first 10 or 11 years we were married, we never went on a real vacation. It was always a conference for the church, some workshop for the church. We never had a true vacation. Even our honeymoon wasn’t a true honeymoon because we got married on New Year’s Eve. So we had to do the Last Night Service. And the way it fell that year, he didn’t want to miss Sunday service. (laughing) Church is a big part of our life.

JS: So, he was pastoring then?

CB: Yes. He was pastoring when we got married.

JS: So, here’s this Catholic girl marrying a pastor. Talk about that journey.

CB: One thing about going to a religious institution for college is that they make you take religion courses for every year you’re there. So I was taking these religion courses and, to be honest with you, they’re very open. They tell you what the Catholic Church is, their doctrine, and why we’re doing things.

Well I had some issues with some of the things they were doing. Like, the reason they didn’t believe in birth control, and emphasized the rhythm method was to propagate the congregation. And I had a really hard time with that, because in high school, I had a friend who had sickle cell. And all her brothers and sisters had the sickle cell trait. And their parents didn’t use birth control, because the church told them not to, which gave them that disease, and they suffered horribly. And I kept on thinking that was crazy! I just didn’t get that. Now I am not saying that the shouldn’t have been born, or anything of that nature. But, just the whole ideal of them feeling trapped and them feeling so guilty about it.

I had some issues with that. I had some issues with why certain other things were done. And I understand having a church is long term and institutional. It takes a long time to change, and we studied all about the Vatican counsels and all those things. So, I just didn’t agree with everything with their doctrine.

JS: So you were open, you were seeking and searching.

CB: Yes. I didn’t quite agree with it. There were a lot of things I did agree with. I liked the whole sense of family and community. But I didn’t really believe in the doctrine, but my grandmother really was a staunch Catholic. And when she found out that I was being Baptist, or I was looking at baptism, and another denomination, her explanation to me was, “Why would you take part? When you have Catholicism, you have the whole pie. Why would you take a piece of the pie instead of the whole pie?” And I said, “But Grandma, I think that’s part of the problem. I think that’s why you have all these offshoots of the original Christian church. Because of the things that were going on. And the doctrines that have been developed over the years.” But she couldn’t get past that.

JS: No. She couldn’t past that.

CB: (laughing) She couldn’t get past it.

JS: So, then you married a Baptist boy.

CB: And then I married a Baptist minister. I loved my grandmother dearly. I spent a lot of time with her. And her husband was Baptist. She always looked at me like: ”Oh, my goodness.”

JS: So, was Ricky the pastor, or was he an associate pastor at that time?

CB: No, he was the pastor at Nazarene Baptist Church. He’s been in the church a year longer than we were married. He tried to get me to marry him before [we got married] but there were just too many things going on. I said, “You’ve got too much stuff going on in your life right now. You know, we should just wait.” But we started dating my senior year of college.

And my idea was that I wasn’t getting married until I was 40. I had my ideals. I was going to graduate school, I wasn’t getting married until I was 40. Maybe some kids. Not so sure. After watching those births during nursing school, I just wasn’t so sure about the whole children thing. And then I did the exact opposite, and I wound up marrying Ricky. You know and we stayed at home. We didn’t move.

JS: And how many children do you have?

CB: I have four.

JS: Four children.

CB: I have four children. I have three boys and one girl.

JS: Now we were talking before we started the interview that you’ve raised a family. Your husband is a very busy man. So your focus is the kids.

CB: It is the kids, yes.

JS: So talk about that. What’s been your philosophy?

CB: I believe that after you have children, your life is not your own anymore. I think that whatever you did or didn’t do, before you had your children, you really don’t have the option. They should be your focus. You only have one shot with them really. I attempted to go back to school a couple of times, but I wasn’t comfortable with it. I wasn’t comfortable trying to go to school and juggle their schedules to make sure they had the things they needed.

My husband was super busy, and I understood that. We agreed early on, who was going to be the primary caregiver. We had those discussions. And I worked parttime when the kids were little. At first I didn’t work, and then I went to part time. And the focus was always that he [Ricky] would be involved. It was just the church then, basically. He’d do church, and then he’d started working part-time as a professor. He did that, and my focus was to make sure the kids had got their meals, schooling, any extra-curricular [activities]. I was the one in charge of that. And I know that’s not for everyone.

And I know some people think professionally I might have sacrificed. However, I have no regrets over the fact that my kids are happy and healthy. And I felt that we were able to do that because there was somebody who was focused on them.

JS: Well, I know a little bit about being a pastor. So a pastor’s wife, it’s not like you’re totally unapproachable or untouchable. I mean, there are demands that are put on your life as a pastor’s wife.

CB: Yes. I did a lot of work with the kids in the church. I did some work with some of the seniors. I did a lot of work. A lot of it is just negotiating certain things that came up. I did do a lot of work. But I wasn’t called to the church. My call was to support him and raise our family, in my mind. I know it wasn’t what the church traditionally was looking for. They were used to somebody being at their beck and call and do what they wanted.

JS: Almost a free associate pastor.

CB: Yes, and I didn’t promote that. But I did promote independence. And I did promote supporting your husbands and doing marriage things. And not to be self serving, or to be subservient to them, but just to help build a household. I tried to take some time and do some things for yourself. Especially since I had a husband who was a work-a-holic.

I remember one anniversary, I guess the boys were fourth grade. I know they were younger. I remember him coming home and the babysitter was there. It was the first time we had ever hired a sitter. We always took our kids everywhere with us. For our anniversary, we had dinner and went to a hotel. We rented a room for the night and, he was surprised. He went and told everybody, because Ricky tells everything, he went and told, “My wife took me to dinner and took for a night out at a hotel.” I had like ten women come up to me and say, “Well how did you do that? Tell me how you worked that part.” It was just the ideal scene.

It’s okay to take that time and spend some time with you to help build your relationship to make sure it stays current because, everybody’s so busy. I just try to be supportive. And because I have a medical background, people call me all the time, saying, “Okay, I’ve got this medicine, what does it do? How does it work?” They’re telling me, “I need this procedure, what does it do?”

JS: So people call you for…

CB: Yeah. So I do a lot of that. But Nazarene, the church we are with, they’re good people. They’ve been very, very kind to my family, as far as supporting. I know not all congregations are very supportive of pastor’s families, or truly caring for their families. And I’m not talking financial. I’m just talking about giving support to your kids. They may say, “Oh I heard you did really well on a test. I heard you’re going to this program, or doing something.” [They are] very supportive, very loving for our kids. Which is a very good thing.

JS: We mentioned earlier too that last December I had the privilege of attending the Jack and Jill formal ball at the William Penn Hotel, and you and Karla Byrd co-chaired that event. Talk about Jack and Jill.

CB: Jack and Jill is an African-American mothers organization that was founded back in 1942. It gives you a venue for you to get kids together and socialize and do some educational, civic things. So it’s a youth group. When Ricky and I grew up, we grew up in a youth group, that we all had fun in. There aren’t those youth groups in the same way. I mean, you have some in your church, and some of them work better than others.

But [Jack and Jill] is an opportunity to get some kids together and to learn some things, and be friends. Karla and I were friends before we came to Jack and Jill, but we’ve become fast friends from doing that because we’re all supportive of our kids. The focus is the kids. It’s not focusing on, “Let’s go and have brunch somewhere, let’s go shopping.” The focus is the kids and it does that.

We gave a [formal] ball when we present our children to society, and we do it every other year. The ball was founded years ago because a lot of African Americans were trying to do things for their kids and have them participate in these local balls, and they weren’t accepted. So that’s how it came to be.

JS: Now do you have other children, younger, coming along in Jack and Jill?

CB: Yes, I do. I have a daughter, Kim. I have one son, William, who was in the last ball. But he’s a 12th grader this year. He’ll be graduating this year. And I have Candace who’s an 11-year-old. So, me and Jack and Jill are friends for a long time. (laughing)

JS: (laughing) You’ve got a few more balls, a few more events… But it’s been a worthwhile experience for you.

CB: Yes. It’s been a great experience for me and my kids.

JS: What happened when Rev. Burgess went into politics. What did that add on? Was there a new dimension to your relationship or your family life? I’m sure it brought more pressures. Talk to us about that transition.

CB: Well, the truth is, it kind of stayed the same. Because my husband has always been busy. He’s always doing some workshop or he’s always going to do something. My focus has still been the kids. I’m supportive, I go to the events that I have to go to, and I really do mean have to. But my focus has primarily been the kids. I have two boys, one boy who graduated from college, one who will graduate next year, and then I have one who is going to high school. So that’s been my focus to make sure they get through programs.

I get them to school and I do all those little things for them. I go support Ricky and I go to some functions, which you know, you really do have to go. But my focus is still focused on my kids. Just because he’s so busy, I have to make sure they have what they need.

JS: We are planning a missions trip for next February. And we’ve had preliminary discussions that you think you’d like to go to Africa.

CB: Yes, I would like to go. And, not only would I like to go. I would like to take the kids. When I say kids, I’m talking about the two younger ones. I think it would be a great experience. A group went from our church this year. And they took some young men to Africa, and my one son was slated to go, but there was also a program he was in that it was interfering with.

And they were also initially thinking about going to some areas that I wasn’t comfortable with them going to in Africa. There was still some civil unrest there, and I’m very protective of my children. So if there’s any possibility that there could be some danger, I’m not really supportive of that. I think it’s a great opportunity. I think to see and support and to serve in the community that we could use something. I think it would be a great thing and a life changing experience.

JS: How about you? Why would you want to go? Besides your children?

CB: Because I think you can be of service there. I’ve looked at it different times. There were a couple groups that were nurses who were going over there and they were doing vaccinations. And I thought about doing it at different times. But it just wasn’t in the cards at the time. The kids were younger. It’s a little easier now because all I have basically now is Candace and William. Juggling four of them was very difficult. But now, the older ones help.

But, I just thought it was something I would like to do. I think it’s something you can do long-term. I do think our job is to serve and help other people. I think you can do it locally, but I also think internationally. It’s a good thing. You need to know from where you come. And I know the theory is, you never know which ethnic background [you came from] especially in these days we’re so mixed up and we don’t know. But, I think, just to know where people are coming from, what they’re doing, sharing their story of life, it’s a big deal.

JS: One day, the children will be gone. And you’ll still be a relatively young woman. What lies ahead for Carlotta when the children may be gone? What do you do then that you perhaps haven’t had a chance to do now?

CB: I would like to travel more. I think I’d like to do a little more community stuff. I used to do a lot more community service focused things. And I do some of those with the children, but I don’t do it independently. Everything has a bent to it, to see how it’s going to fill out [for them]. Like we did the supper for the senior dinners at all the local Homewood high rises. I had a group of women who were helping me do it. But it’s kind of died down. But that’s something I want to make sure goes on more long term.

I didn’t realize until we started doing it, the number of senior citizens who really just don’t have enough food, to last them through the month. Or they need somebody just to socialize with. We do the holiday dinners, like the Thanksgiving dinners. But the number of the elderly who live in our community who do not have a place to go on Thanksgiving was alarming to me. And I think partially because I came from such a big extended family. We always had everybody there. There was always food there. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry would stop past and have a meal.

Like, my grandmother’s house. We moved in with her when her husband died. Because she was by herself and she was having some health issues. So I talked Ricky into moving there with her, because she didn’t want to move. And we got rid of the house that we were in. And we stayed there and we lived there for a while. People came to the door. She fed anybody that came to the door. So she had this group of people that she was feeding. Some homeless, some just mentally ill, you could tell. And I was like, “Gram, you can’t do this. People will kill you.” And she said, “God protects me, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And they would come knocking at the door, “Where’s the lady who gives me the food?” And I would be like, “Oh my God, I don’t know what to do about this!”

JS: So you were the new designate. You were the new replacement help.

CB: I was sitting there saying, “Gram, you can’t open this door!” Because initially, some of the first ones I had seen were older and a little bit more feeble. But there were some young, brawny men coming through there and I’m thinking, “This is dangerous, Grandma.” And I started sending people down to the food bank at the church. “Tell them Carlotta Burgess sent you. They’ll give you a bag of food.” Just because I did get a little scared. And I kept on saying, “You know Grandma, things aren’t the same anymore.” And it was okay when it wasn’t just me and a baby at home. If Ricky was there, then I had some backup, just in case somebody comes in to do something inappropriate. But, I said, “Gram, we can’t be opening up this door like this.”

JS: Is there anything you do just for you? To relax? Do you read? Do you go for walks? Do you go to mall? What do you do?

CB: I watch Home & Garden television. (laughing)

JS: (laughing) Home & Garden. My wife does too. Do you garden?

CB: No.

JS: You just watch other people garden?

CB: I just watch other people do it.

JS: Get vicarious enjoyment by what they do. So you watch some tv. Do you read much?

CB: I read some, but not a lot. To be honest with you, reading is something I do when I do get to go on a vacation. I take a book with me. The kids can be running around having a vacation. But me getting that book, with them swimming in a pool or something, is major relaxation. You know, you can go off to a world of your own in your little book.

JS: You’ve been a lifelong resident of East Pittsburgh, and you’ve been around here. How can we address some of the challenges? What are you seeing and what are you hoping for the future that can transpire?

CB: We have to take care of these kids. I know people are scared of a lot of these kids and these young men. I know they’re scared. I know they can be scary. But these are just kids. You watch them, and especially the young men, because I think sometimes women can deal with the young men a little bit better, just because there’s no masculinity involved. You know, you’re saying, “Okay baby, don’t swear while you’re walking down the street.” I never forget that we had a Saturday program ...

JS: At the church.

CB: At the church. And the kids used to come in. We’d feed everybody and we’d do some Bible study and some arts and crafts. We do some history and we’d do some singing. And a lot of those same kids, you’d see them as they get older, they wouldn’t come too often. But you would see them on the street and when you were walking down the street, there would be a store down the street. We’d walk down the street to the store and you’d see them coming down the street. And they were goofing around, maybe using some profanity. But when they would see you, they would straighten up. And you could hear them… Like some of the ones who might now know you, they would say, “Shhh, that’s Mrs. Burgess, stop that.”

So, I think, we just need to reach out to them. And I know it’s hard. I know it takes a lot of commitment. But we really have to reach out because a lot of their parents aren’t old enough to raise them. I mean, we have a lot of kids who are being raised by children. And they need support. Then also, years ago when I was younger, everybody, somebody went to church. There’s a whole generation of people who never went to church. Their grandma didn’t go to church.

Their great grandma did not go to church. Because the kids were so young, their grandma, their great-grandma, they’ve never seen the inside of a church. So we have to do something to reach out to them, to be more understanding of their situation.

And I think by having things that are non-traditional, or having things for the kids to help meet their needs. Either, helping after school programs, doing Saturday programs, giving them meals. We did one summer program. and it was really hard to get people to understand that. Those kids were eating those city lunches, which we know are not the best quality lunches in America. And our little school kids, were saying, “I don’t want that lunch, I don’t want that lunch.” But then there were kids asking, “Can I have 2 or 3 of them. Could I take one home to [my] sister or somebody?” And there were a couple of women there who didn’t understand. They would say, “No, you don’t need to take any home. You already ate. You don’t need to eat anymore.”

And I would be like, “No, you don’t understand. You don’t understand. Did your child, did your grandchild eat that lunch? No. They didn’t like it. Okay. So if he’s asking for that lunch, there must be a reason for it. You have to give him that lunch. And you can’t make him feel bad about it, because then he can’t come back, and he’s not felt the love that he needs to find in the church. You have to provide an environment where they feel loved, safe, and secure. That when they do have a problem, they can come and have a conversation with you. That they know there’s somebody who’ll care for them, someone who will help them out.”

Even at church, we don’t give them a lot of money, but every kid who graduates from high school, or who’s going to college or some other vocational things, we give them a little token. We do something to support them. We applaud their achievements. We have to start helping mentor these kids and help guiding these kids. And maybe that’s my focus because that’s where my heart is. That you really have to get to these kids, because if you don’t, they don’t have a chance. You know, they just don’t have a chance.

JS: Any favorite verse? Any passage? Anything that guides your life in thinking; shows up in your mind every now and then?

CB: Well my mantra to my children is: to whom much is given, much is expected. And for me, I truly believe I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

JS: Well, Carlotta, thank you for your time. Thank you for your commitment to your family. It is not an insignificant expression to strengthen our community, you know, one life at a time. And I won’t be surprised if your future doesn’t hold some youth mentoring and work. You are pretty passionate there. You’ve shunned the limelight. You’ve stayed focused on what was most important to you. As we close, what words of advice or wisdom would you have for somebody listening as they‘re thinking about their own life and how they can make an impact and a difference? What would you say to them?

CB: I do believe this that you can be supportive in anything you do. And you don’t have to carry a big placard. You don’t have to scream and shout it. I think our actions and our deeds can show support and the true Christ that lives in us. It doesn’t have to be a big momentous public to do. I do believe that when you get all your accolades here, then you’ve lost your blessing. I want my blessing. I don’t need you to pat me on the back or anything.

JS: You’re going for a bigger prize.

CB: You don’t need to pat me on the back and tell me how wonderful I am. I’m trying to keep my blessing. And if you do all of this stuff for me, then maybe God will say, “Well you already got yours.” I truly believe that we do do things one life at a time. You just try to be kind and supportive to each other. And I think we’d be in a much better place.

JS: Well, that’s good advice. And Carlotta, thank you for your generous offering of time to help us with this program. And we look forward to hearing updates on you and the family and the reverend. Please give him our love and regards. And our thanks too, for his commitment and his role in making our community a better place, and for extending the Kingdom of God as well. Thank you so much.

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