The door locked behind me, its sound echoed briefly down the hallway as I gazed along the empty corridor. I was alone in jail—not completely alone, as there were surveillance cameras up near the ceiling, so I was being watched. I made my way through several more locked doors, up an elevator and was finally greeted by an armed guard who led me into a small holding cell. I had made this short, silent journey every Friday morning for months and each time it was a strange sensation to hear the doors lock behind me, and find myself alone in this cold, indifferent environment.
Earlier in the year I had joined a prison ministry program through the Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa and as a member of this I had an official identification card and free access to visit inmates at the Sonoma County Jail. There were three young men who had requested visits so I spent several hours meeting with them one at a time on Fridays, listening to their stories and providing a friendly presence. Occasionally we opened the Bible and read a psalm, a proverb or another passage, but for the most part they just wanted to talk and needed someone to listen.
Once they came to see that I was there to help them and trusted that I didn’t have any ulterior motive, each of them had a great deal to say and were eager to share their life stories, the ups and downs, the good and bad, and how they had come to be in jail. The common thread in all three stories was a lack of support and caring in their homes growing up. They detailed abuse, or neglect and often violence in their childhood environments. When I told them that I loved them, each reacted with surprise, confusion, skepticism and finally in time, when they believed me, with hope and sadness. They were hopeful that what I said was true, grateful that someone finally expressed love for them without anything to gain in return, and sadness for the lack of love in their lives. Beneath the hardness, the craftiness, the worldliness and emotional armor these guys each turned out to be gentle and sad, and more than a little bit empty inside.
I could empathize with them and I saw myself in each of them. Were I to have had a less fortunate childhood, or had I been caught doing this or that, or had I given in to any number of my vices, or been overwhelmed by them to a larger degree than I typically am, then it could easily have been me locked up in this jail, hoping for a visitor. Without any doubt at all, if God had ever made a prison for my crimes committed against Him, for my sinful thoughts and actions, I would absolutely be in that prison.
I hired one of these young men to work for me when he was released from jail. For several weeks I picked him up from his mother’s home each morning and he worked closely with me as I trained him in various aspects of landscaping and construction. However, it turned out he was more comfortable in jail, with the routines that he knew and had grown accustomed to, so shortly thereafter, he was arrested again for a new crime and returned to jail. When we met again in the visiting room of the jail he looked at me and shrugged and said he guessed this is just where he belongs. I didn’t have a good answer to that but smiled at him and told him I was sorry it had turned out this way.
I was also sorry things had turned out the way they did for MD. He had warned us years earlier that a likely outcome of our course with him would be that he would end up in prison. Even though he had known this was possible, maybe even likely, and even though he had prepared me for this potential I was still sad to see him there. I visited him on occasion in Vacaville, until he was transferred to a different location farther south, in Atascadero.
By the year 2001 I was getting tired of landscaping and wanted a different challenge so I applied to graduate school in architecture. I was placed on a waiting list at the University of Washington, but could take classes towards the degree through their extension office while waiting to be admitted the following year. So V and I moved north to Seattle and I enrolled in several architecture courses starting that fall.
In looking for a new church to attend in Seattle, I told a friend that I wanted to find a church that really lived out their beliefs and practiced their faith in concrete and practical ways. He suggested I look into the Mennonites. Seattle Mennonite Church was not far from the house V and I rented, and it was convenient one Sunday to drop in and see what their services were like. As I learned more about the Mennonites I was impressed with their history: the oppression and suffering they had lived under in Europe and the dedication to their beliefs which they displayed in the face of this oppression, to the point of martyrdom in very many cases, and I was impressed with their commitment to social issues from helping the poor to helping anyone who was marginalized by our society. They were true champions of the underdog, which is also something I had always tried to be, so it felt like a very good fit.
Later that year I was hired to coordinate their volunteer programs which included a service program aimed mainly for college-aged students in which they volunteered for a two-year commitment with various non-profit agencies in the Puget Sound region. The participants came from all parts of the United States and even from overseas. While in Seattle they all lived together in a large Victorian house on Capitol Hill owned by the church. Part of my job was to interview applicants to the program, help place them with agencies and then provide support to them for the two years while they lived and worked in the program. At any given time there were around ten young adults living together in the house and volunteering with the program.
The following year I began attending the University of Washington full-time as a student in their graduate architecture program while also continuing to work as the volunteer coordinator for the church. V wasn’t interested in attending the church with me, and though she exhibited so many qualities of a Christian, in her kindness and empathy among other things, in the final analysis she wasn’t a Christian and I think in many ways she felt antagonized by my Christianity even without my intent. One thing was certainly true, between my graduate studies and working for the church I had very little time left over to spend with her. She was quiet and didn’t often let on what was bothering her but I imagine this bothered her and contributed at least in part to her desire to leave me the following year and to request a divorce.
One of my roles as the volunteer coordinator for the church was to welcome a group of short-term volunteers from Colorado State University who came to Seattle each year on their spring break to serve people in the inner city. Our church hosted this group while they stayed in Seattle and it was my job to welcome them at the airport, drive them back to the church and orient them to their rooms, the showers and the kitchen where they would prepare their meals and then be available for whatever needs might arise for them during their week in Seattle.
One year, as I was walking the group up to the side entrance of the church, we all got a big surprise. Fortunately later that night, after the surprise had ended, I wrote out an account of the entire thing, including the dialog, which I present here:
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.
(to be continued)