Yeah, this actually happened. Out of the 4 years of traveling and living in Central America, I never once got robbed – until last November, when it occurred twice in two weeks. In this post I want to focus on the first of the two.
It’s hard for me to believe (especially after looking at the statistics) that with four out of the top five countries with the highest homicide rates in the world being located in Central America, nothing has happened to us. I know that it’s a result of God’s grace and protection. We actually lived in Honduras for six months, a country of 7.9 million people with the highest homicide rate in the world: 20 murders per day. To put that into perspective, the San Francisco Bay of similar size, has about 7.5 million people, and up until July of this year averaged 0.5 homicides per day. I’m not trying to scare anyone into thinking that we are going to get killed; most of these murders happen between different gangs and drug cartels. But it’s very unusual that we had never once been mugged, which isn’t an uncommon occurrence, even here in Costa Rica.
Well, my time came on a sunny afternoon in the central park of San Jose, Costa Rica called “La Sabana.” Nicole and I were out on a Saturday afternoon, enjoying the sunshine, and set up a hammock on a hill overlooking some people playing soccer. We had brought a picnic lunch in a backpack, and wanted to spend the day alone relaxing outside. We had already been there for about an hour or two, and were both laying in the hammock napping. As I was lying there, I thought to myself “I should probably check on the backpack under us.” So I lifted my head to look under the hammock to make sure our stuff was there, and to my surprise the backpack was gone! I shook Nicole to wake her up and tell her that our stuff was missing, when all of a sudden I hear people screaming.
I look up the hill at the noise and see two Costa Rican women pointing and yelling at something. Although they were far off, I knew they were talking to me, and I slowly turned my head. It almost felt like a movie, as I – in slow motion – turned my head to look down the hill, I saw 4 kids running off into the distance… with my backpack! In that moment I thought of all the stuff in it: my wallet, two iPod’s, and a journal. Without even thinking, I swiftly jumped out of the hammock and began running full speed down the hill barefoot. I hadn’t really thought through anything at this point, it was just pure instinct and adrenaline as I began booking it downhill as fast I could. As I’m approaching, these four kids look back, see me, drop the backpack and keep running! I don’t think I had ever run so fast in my life. I knew these kids were quite scared, but my desire to catch them was stronger. So I picked up the backpack and continued the chase. They eventually ran right through the middle of a soccer game. As we ran across the field I yelled, “Me robaron, me robaron!” (they robbed me, they robbed me). As a result, 22 big Nicaraguan soccer players immediately began to chase these four kids. It was right about then that I began to slow down – it was pretty obvious that these guys were going to catch them – and it hit me, “Oh crap, I am literally chasing four kids with an army of people behind me. What is going on?!”
Ahead of me I could see that the soccer guys had caught the bandits. As I approached these four boys, I could feel everyone’s gaze begin to follow me. As I got closer I could see a few of the men yelling at the kids, roughing them up, and dumping the contents of their backpacks and pockets on the ground. I am not lying when I say there were people literally grabbing big rocks off the ground and walking up to the kids. All of a sudden this story of Jesus came rushing into my mind…
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
As I walked up to these boys, I felt as if all the people were looking at me like, “what are you going to do? Tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” I even had to break up one of the boys and an adult man who was holding him by the collar. They were all yelling at the boys, calling them thieves and street scum, condemning them and talking about how they ought to beat them up.
Now I am not the best when it comes to confrontation or arguments, but in that moment I just felt a peace, and a great authority came over me as I said, “Leave the kids alone, I just want to talk to them, let them be and I will deal with them.” So the guys let go of the kids and out of nowhere a passerby walked up to me and asked, “Is there any problem here?” as he flipped open an OIJ badge (Equivalent of FBI in the USA). This off-duty agent then said to me, “We can call the police and have these kids taken away, I will contact them right now if you want.” And with all these soccer players, random people, and an FBI agent standing by, I looked over at the kids and the rest of the story began to play in my mind…
“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.”
I looked over at the officer and told him I didn’t need him to call the police, but that I wanted to talk to the boys. I looked over at the four kids, who looked to be between the ages of 11 and 14, and they were standing there looking at me with scowls on their faces. So I asked them, “Why did you rob my backpack from me?” and they began to speak fast and frustrated saying that it was this one other kid that told them to do it, and that they weren’t going to take anything, and that they didn’t actually do anything. So I looked at them again and said, “I don’t want you guys to get in trouble, I could have these guys call the police and have them deal with you, but I just want to hear why you stole it.” They kept going on and on saying that it wasn’t their fault. Then luckily some person that was standing next to me says to them, “C’mon kids, this guy is trying to be cool about this, just talk to him.” The kids looked up at me with a softer gaze, and began to explain that they wanted the backpack so they could sell whatever was in it and buy stuff they need. So I asked them, “Are you guys hungry, do you need clothes, what is it that you need?” They looked at me and sheepishly said that they were hungry and wanted to buy food…
“But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
As I stood there before these kids and a bunch of random people, I could tell through the little comments people made that those on the outside watching were not very happy with how softly I was dealing with these boys. I looked at the four boys and said, “Ok, if you’re hungry then let’s go buy something to eat.” They looked at me dumbfounded with this look that said, “What are you talking about?” So I said it again “Yeah, let’s go get something to eat, I wanna buy food for you guys.” All four of them looked at each other and laughed like, “I think this gringo is out of his mind.” So we left the semi-circle of onlookers, and started walking towards a street vendor. It was almost comical, with the four boys walking in line, heads hanging down as I followed closely behind.
We ended up finding a street vendor in the park, and the boys each chose a soda, some chips and mangoes. We then found a bench where we sat down and started talking. For the next 45 minutes these four boys talked and joked around with me. They told me about their lives and their home situations. Not one of the kids had a father around, and each came from very rough neighborhoods, with older brothers and fathers who had gotten killed in gunfights. I knew the moment I saw these boys running with my backpack that they weren’t just “bad kids” but were street kids, and were likely coming from broken homes. After we finished talking, I told all of them “You know that stealing things will never get you anywhere, and if you continue to steal and live dishonestly, you will end up like your older brothers and fathers, getting killed or being homeless your whole lives. I didn’t call the cops because I was afraid, or thought that what you did wasn’t wrong, but because I believe God has a plan for you guys, and loves each of you.” With that, they each gave me a high five, and one of them even hugged me, said he was sorry and went off.
As I walked back to Nicole, I couldn’t help but think how God often dealt with me in this same way. How often have I screwed up and done wrong, deserving “the police” to come take me away? He has always shown me mercy and even given me grace. This wasn’t a story to make me look cool, because in all honesty it wasn’t that big of a sacrifice, but it’s purpose was to glorify God, and show that “through God’s kindness” we find repentance. That Jesus, the revolutionary, was a man who didn’t repay evil for evil, but blessed his enemies. Not only did He allow His enemies to kill Him, but proved that in sacrifice, in dying to ourselves, we are victorious.
I pray that we may learn to live a life in which we die to ourselves, our pride and even our right to have our own personal “justice,” and that we may begin to live a life that reflects what Jesus stood for.