Whew! I Thought They Were Going To Mug Me!
Steve Dresselhaus, July 2020
Las Palmas is not a nice neighborhood. It is a government-planned housing project which, as is typical of such government-inspired social programs, not only failed to live up to either its expectations or its promise of Nirvana-like conditions, but actually set in motion the very thing it was trying to avoid. It is run down, invaded by drug users and dealers and a hotbed of crime and violence. Little is attractive about this neighborhood.
I was there helping some friends, a young couple with a toddler daughter, move into one of the units. The Covid panic resulted in a government-mandated closure of nearly all businesses, which caused our friend’s restaurant-dependent business to enter a near total collapse. Unable to keep paying the rent for their nicer apartment in a better neighborhood, they were forced to make a move backward into a place they could afford. Their new neighborhood is anything but a decent place for these young Covid refugees to raise a family.
For about 15 minutes I waited alone outside the building, guarding the family’s possessions piled into the back of my pickup truck. The dumpster next to my parking spot reeked, giving off a sour stench in the 95-degree heat. The air was so hot, so humid, so thick, I could almost see the malodorous vapors, this incense to Satan, rising from their moist and gooey source. A man either in his 20s or 90s, his dirty, emaciated body whittled to skeletal thinness by crystal meth, dug through the garbage looking for whatever. Several times he approached me asking if he could help move the furniture in my truck to its new home on the top floor of the elevatorless building. I said I was the driver and that he would have to ask the renter who was upstairs at that moment cleaning out the garbage left by a former tenant, long since gone, making room for the furniture we were about to lug up the four flights of the urine-stinking stairwell in the UTI from Hell.
I glanced down the parking lot. Coming towards me were two men. They did not look like nice men. They approached me directly, with obvious intent. They were not simply walking by. They were coming at me. This was not looking like it would end well. The men’s faces were hard and craggy, sculpted by the hammer and chisel of drugs, alcohol and fists. One of them wore a short, loose-fitting jacket, in spite of the intense heat and the steamy humidity brought to us by a tropical depression 100 miles offshore. The other wore a loose-fitting button-down shirt, open halfway down his chest and untucked. Both were wearing what you wear when you have a gun tucked into the back of your pants.
One of them asked me what I was doing there. I replied I was there to help a friend move. He said, “So are we,” and then both of them leaned up against my truck, clearly intending to stay, clearly having some purpose in mind. In my mind I began to look for ways to hand over my money but not my wallet and ID. Would they see my brand new phone I had temptingly and foolishly left on the front seat of the truck? This was setting up to be a mugging, no doubt about it.
Wanting to preempt whatever their plans were, I asked the shorter of the two, the one who seemed like the leader, who they were there to help. He said “Marcos.” Marcos! Marcos was who I was helping. Light began to appear at the end of the tunnel. On a hunch, I asked if they were members of the Community Church, Marcos’s church. Instant ear-to-ear grins added a horizontal crease to the vertical wrinkles in the hardened-by-life leathery-skinned faces of the two men. They both said “yes.” The leader of the two asked me if I too was a Christian. Like Mentos in a Coke, relief overwhelmed me. Though they would not look out of place in a police line-up, I now knew what these men were truly like. They were like me, not perfect, but struggling every day to be the people we want to be, to behave a bit more like Jesus today then yesterday. These men were my brothers. I could trust them with my life because, like me, they trusted the one who gave his life for them, for me, for us. Knowing who they were, I knew that love, joy, peace, patience, goodness and self-control were what I would see, not a gun in their hand with a demand for my money. They were still as imperfect as I am, but the fact that they are Jesus followers made them safe. Their faces may have looked like they belong in the photos on a post office wall; but like me they have been forgiven and given a new and repurposed life. Instead of armed robbery I now saw selfless behavior, a love for others, a willingness to serve others and a desire to make the world a better place.
By the time Marcos returned to the truck, the three of us were talking like old friends. We talked about kayaking and beaches; and we talked about how King Jesus had changed us, turning us from what we had been to what we are today. The Bible says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” These men showed what it means to be a new person in Christ. The moment I knew these two men were followers of Jesus like me, I knew how they would think, what they would do, and that harming others was the last thing on their minds. I knew what the purpose of their life was and that it was far bigger than themselves. I knew that loving their neighbors was one of their goals. Fear turned to joy in a nanosecond. The more we talked, the more their street hardened faces softened. The diamond-like hardness of their eyes turned to velvet. Even though we were surrounded by the ugliness of a violent neighborhood I was safe, because I was with family.