It was getting dark as we finally pulled into the parking lot. In the van with me were a group of fifteen college students from Colorado State University who had come to Seattle for a week to work on a service project over their spring break. They were excited to be here but were also tired from their flight, and ready to see where they were going to be staying for the coming week.
Their accommodations were on the second floor of the Mennonite church building in town. The church is situated in an urban environment amidst low-rent apartment buildings, thrift stores and car dealerships. At night, it is probably safe, especially if you are in a group of fifteen, but it is still a good idea to keep an eye out for potential trouble.
This particular year I was working for the church, coordinating service programs. So it was my job to welcome this group, show them around, and be available if they needed anything.
We piled out of the van, loaded ourselves with duffle bags, suitcases, and sleeping bags and trekked across the parking lot to the church.
In my mind I was running through everything I needed to show them about the building; the location of the shower, the bathrooms, the kitchen, which door to enter through and which one to leave closed and locked…when I saw, coming out of this very same door, someone who shouldn’t have been. In his arms he was carrying a microwave oven and stuffed poorly into his backpack was a portable stereo.
He glanced our way and then hustled quickly around the corner of the building with his new acquisitions.
It is a rare thing to catch someone in the act of stealing so my mind didn’t immediately register what I had just seen. Was he really stealing from us? I asked myself. Maybe I know him. He probably attends the church and I just didn’t recognize him in the fading light. I rationalized. But then, why did he scuttle off so quickly in the opposite direction after seeing us coming towards him?
I decided he was definitely a thief so I sprang into action. I quickly told the students that we were being robbed, handed them the keys to the building and told them to go inside and make themselves comfortable as I dashed off after the intruder.
I caught up with him not far down the street and confronted him. “What are you doing? Those are our things you are taking from the church.”
“No they aren’t,” he replied.
“Of course they are. I can tell you exactly where they came from. That microwave in your hands is out of the youth room, and the stereo is also.”
“But I just saw you coming out of the door of the church.”
“No I didn’t.”
“I see those things everyday. I know you took them.”
As the conversation proceeds we continue to walk down the darkened street.
“Look”, he said as he turned to face me. “Do you want me to just smash this over your head?” He gestured to the microwave.
He looked menacingly at me and I took him at his word.
“No. I just want you to return them.”
He started walking again and I followed alongside. “Okay. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they are yours and it is just a crazy coincidence. Come back to the church with me and we’ll look at the location I think they belong. If the microwave and stereo are there then I apologize.”
“I’m not going back,” he snapped. “Just leave me alone.”
“I’m not going to leave you alone. You have our things.”
No reply. We walked a moment in silence. Who knows what he was thinking, but my mind was racing trying to come up with the key to unlock this situation. The line I was taking wasn’t working.
“What do you need?” I asked him.
“I understand…look,” I said, “I don’t want you to have to steal for it and you don’t want to steal either.”
He didn’t answer.
“I know you don’t want to steal. Not really.”
We walked a little further and he stopped. We were standing under a dim streetlight, at a corner where two roads met. I pulled out my wallet, opened it, and counted to myself what I had.
“I have forty dollars. You can have it.”
His expression changed, softening for a moment. Then he looked suspicious.
“Why would you give me that?”
I thought for a moment, and in that space of time, God gave me love for him.
“Because I love you. God loves you too. I don’t want you to have to steal.”
He looked at me for a moment, evaluating me in some way unknown to me. And then he asked, “If I didn’t give these things back would you still give me the money?”
That was a great question. I paused to think about it. The answer had to be yes or my ‘love’ was going to look pretty cheap. But the answer also had to be true because I was sure he would have seen right through me if it wasn’t. In any case I didn’t want to cheapen this brief relationship with a lie.
I imagined the possibility that I gave him the money and he kept the stolen property. I didn’t know how that would eventually turn out but I made myself okay with that chance and told him so.
He considered my response. I offered him the money, reaching out to him. He thought a bit further and then really surprised me with what he said next.
“Let me carry these things back for you.”
“Really!? I asked, “I can take the microwave for you.”
“No. I want to carry them all back for you.”
So he turned around and began walking back the way he had come, retracing his steps back to the door of the church. I turned and walked alongside him yet again. On the way back he began talking, and talking, and he didn’t stop talking for a long time.
“Nobody has ever loved me. No one says they love me. My dad never loved me. I can’t believe it, that you love me. I’m just passing through town. I don’t have a home and I don’t know anyone here. You know if someone just would have loved me. That was really cool. Thank you so much for the money. I really need it.”
We stopped in view of the church and he looked at me. “Can I give you these now? I don’t want to go back there.”
He handed the microwave to me and then took off his backpack and pulled the stereo out and placed it on top of the microwave in my arms.
“You’re welcome to come and join us while you are in town. I won’t tell anyone who did this so if you come in on Sunday no one will know you. It’ll be fine.”
“Thanks. I probably won’t be around.”
We exchanged a few more pleasantries and then he waved goodbye, turned and walked into the darkness.
I watched him go and then walked back to the church. I thought to myself, I’ve met several thieves in my life but I’ve never before met a thief that gave it all back.
I felt that God really taught us both a lot that evening. I was surprised to find the person that emerged when he was treated with kindness instead of anger. Though he acted despicably at first by stealing, he was treated with dignity, and in the end this allowed him to respond with dignity and with grace.
I praise God for teaching us the value of love, and the practical way that it can make a bad situation good.