By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Back in 2003 James Kettor, who is 47, won the lottery. No, it wasn’t a million dollars, it was just a visa permitting him to emigrate from his native Liberia to the United States, which to him was worth a million dollars. Everything has a price, however, and for Kettor and his wife Sarah it meant leaving their eight children behind, at least temporarily.

Now St. Francis de Sales Council 315, Knights of Peter Claver, is trying to rectify the situation by raising funds to reunite the family.

It’s funny when you think about it. Liberia, which means liberty, is Africa’s oldest republic, founded in 1816 with the approval of the United States as a haven for freed American slaves. Its capital, Monrovia, is named for President James Monroe. But liberty and freedom can be elusive qualities, not always transportable.

“My country was fighting a civil war for four years, and I was fleeing from country to country seeking refuge. This is a country where freedom is and I wanted freedom in my life,” Kettor said. “I was praying to God to be able to come to the U.S.”

During the turmoil of the civil war the Kettor family was separated, and in any case, James Kettor could only scrape up the money to come himself, hoping in America he could raise the money to bring Sarah and the children: Joseph, John, Elizabeth, James, Baindu, Amelia, Marie and Mark.

He arrived in December 2003 and almost by chance settled in Philadelphia. A Catholic, he started to attend St. Francis de Sales Church in West Philadelphia and also joined the Knights of Peter Claver, the nation’s leading African-American Catholic fraternal group.

In his home country he’d been a tax collector and elementary school principal among other things, but as often is the case, in America James had to start at the bottom, in low-paying jobs.

Nevertheless, after a few months Sarah was able to join him, and with both working, every cent they could spare went back to Monrovia to support the eight children – mostly in their teens – as well as the aunt and uncle who were caring for them. James also began taking courses in the health field at Temple University so as to better his financial position.

In March of this year James was sworn in as a citizen, and although Sarah is still a permanent resident, it simplified the visa process for bringing over the children whose ages now range from 10 to 22. But there was still that question of money.

“I never had the financial means to send for them,” he said.

He turned to his parish and the knights for assistance, and with the approval of the pastor, Father Zachary Navit, a committee of mostly parishioners was formed to help the family, with the knights taking the lead.

“My brother knights and I stepped up and said we would help,” said Grand Knight Paul Harvey.

It will cost about $1,200 to bring each of the children over, he estimated, and that’s just the beginning; there will be other expenses involved as they start their new life.

“I feel very proud. This is one of the things we have to do as Catholic men,” said Edmund Wells, the little council’s financial secretary. “James is hard-working and has come a long way since he’s come. This is going to be a great thing for us to do.”

A first fundraiser was a Lenten Brunch held at St. Francis in late March.

The latest effort was a May 31 benefit concert of religious folk music performed pro bono by popular folk singer Charlie Zahm and his backup musicians in the St. Francis School Hall.

“I’m humbled and honored to be asked to bring an afternoon of music to this auditorium in hopes of raising funds for this important event,” Zahm said. “Very few things I can think of are more important than reuniting a family.”

Sarah seconds that. “I miss the children,” she said. “I want to see them in person.”

At this time the target date for reuniting the family is some time in August. The Knights of Peter Claver and the good people at St. Francis de Sales will do everything they can to make it happen.

For further information, call 215-729-7439.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.