Gang Boss and Thieves
Since Brayancito came to live with us, I felt the need to teach him how to drive. This skill is not easily learned in his circle of friends and family because many people do not own cars in Honduras. Since he is now with me, I wanted to teach him so he will know for the future. He has driven many times from the ministry to the house. This night was no different. I threw him the keys, “You can drive,” I said. He caught the keys with a big grin on his face. He had gotten quite good at opertating the Toyota, changing gears and driving well. This was the second time to drive at night though. Normally, we all go home in the same car; we all cram into the Toyota. Tonight though, Rina wanted to drive the Nissan home. It looked like it was going to be just me and Brayan in the car, but at the last minute Angie jumped in. “Can I sit with you daddy?” She wanted to sit up front with me. Nathanael often rides with Rina in the front while I drive, but Angie doesn’t have much opportunity. I wanted to say no, but in the end said yes, for the dirt road. “Just until we get to the BLVD, and then you go in the back.” No sooner had we left the ministry, Angie asked me to tell her about Magic Mountain. I told her all about different rides that I went on when I was a kid and some of our experiences there. She listened intently as I shouted above the noise of the loud engine. When we arrived at the BLVD, Angie jumped into the back seat. When we got home, Brayan killed the motor at the top of the hill and we jumped out. I went to the back seat to pull my backpack out and only found my computer. That was weird because I always pack my backpack and my computer together and put them in the car and I remembered doing just so, not 30 minutes ago. “Brayan, do you have my backpack?” I asked, thinking maybe he had grabbed it. “No,” came his reply. Did Rina grab it and put it in the Nissan? Why would she do that and not tell me? I have the computer, but not the bag and I remember specifically placing both in the car.
My backpack is like my briefcase. Everything is in it. I have important documents, my receipt catalog for the ministry, my bibles, my prayer journal, my computer charger, and during this time of sign-ups, the money for salaries at MLV because Karen gives me the money rather than keep it in the office. Two years ago we were robbed by a break-in and since then we keep no money at the ministry. We just finished sign-ups and the students pay in advance. It was all there. No one knew I had it and it was usually safe.
Stay calm, I decided, until Rina comes. She must have the bag in the Nissan. A few minutes later, her yellow beams could be seen as she powered up the hill to our house. She parked at the top by the Toyota. Before she could even get out, I asked, “Did you grab my backpack?” She gave me a puzzled look and shook her head. “Maybe it fell out when the door opened.” Brayancito said behind me.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. Ever since our accident four years ago, the back door on the Toyota occasionly and randomly will swing open while we are driving. We have tried to fix this or get a new door, but with no success. The kids know not to sit by that door and we just deal with it. It almost never happens, but we want to be safe. “The door opened when we were by Don Will’s house,” Brayacito said. “I told you it opened when it happened, but you didn’t hear me, so I just reached out through my window and shut it.”
“Vamanos!” I yelled, breaking for the car. Brayancito and I jumped in the Toyota and I revved the engine. This time I was driving, and like a mad man out of a Mission Impossible movie, I tore out of the property yelling to Rina that I was going to look for the bag!
I threw my cell phone to Brayancito as we roared down the hill toward the BLVD. “Call everyone you can by the ministry and tell them to get out and look for my bag!” We ripped rubber on the BLVD, flew under the overpass bridge, spewed dirt by the factory, and bounced all over all the potholes like head-bangers on a mission. We passed Mario, David, and Teodolinda’s family on the way. Everyone was looking in the wrong spot. They were even on the wrong street. I flew past them and took a sharp right onto the road to MLV and gunned it. We bounced furiously to the spot Brayancito had shut the door. I killed the engine and jumped out. Three blocks from the Ministry, just past Don Will’s house, just past where all the druggies and gang members hang out in front of the soccer field. “Brayan, turn the cellphone flashlight on!” Brayan obeyed and we started searching the overgrowth on either side of the street. Rina came behind us and had tactically stopped at a friend’s business place to ask if she had seen or heard anything. She said she saw someone with a backpack and he had just come by. He lived in a house on Will’s street and was known for being a thief. Junior was his name. We found him about an hour later and confronted him. He pleaded innocent. He gave us the story of his night movements and said we could even search his house. He was all too eager to help us have proof of his innocence that I didn’t believe him, but what could we do? We had no witness and no proof. Rina’s friend found out what was going on and why we were asking and immediately regretted saying anything about Junior. She begged us not to tell about her and she turned off her phone.
Neighbors told us that the gang members have a leader and if anyone could get the backpack back, it was him. The next morning we investigated who the gang leader was and where he lived. Another friend showed us his house and I went and knocked on the door. No answer. A boy on a bike yelled to me, “They get up really late.” “Like when?” I asked. He shrugged, “Like maybe ten? They stay up really late.” They stay up late because the drugs are traded and sold at night and the leader makes rounds keeping his businesses safe. I parked the car a block up where I could see the front door in my rearview and decided to wait. Rina was with me. “Are you nervous?” I asked. “Are you with me on this?” She said she was.
Sure enough at about ten, the door opened and a young man with a groggy face stepped out in white basketball shorts and shirtless. I jumped out of the car, “Are you Joseph?” I said with my biggest smile. He looked startled that I knew his name and was asking for him, and probably thought about going back inside, but in a moment decided to stand his ground. All I saw was him flinch. “Who is asking?” He said sternly, warning me away. “I’m Brian from Ministerio La Voz and I am told that you are Joseph. I have a problem that only you can help me with.” We stared at each other through the gate. He tried to read me as I stood smiling at him and finally motioned for me to come inside. I entered with Rina close behind and explained to him losing the backpack in his neighborhood. He listened and rubbed a rose tattoo on his left hand that seemed like he’d been picking at, trying to see if he could rip it off. His cheek had a hole in it that started to bleed, probably from a fight the night before.
You’re probably wondering why a gang leader, drug dealer would help me? Well.., they like to have peace in the neighborhood. If people are being robbed or mistreated, they call the police and police start to investigate and eventually they lose their business. So the gang promises to protect the neighborhood and keep thieves away so that they can do business. They take care of anyone they deem riff raff in their own way, usually with violence or death. The neighborhood in turn is afraid to call the police because the gang is the law and they govern the way they want to. This gang had killed people and they were serious. There was a chance he would help us because the ministry is part of his neighborhood. I hoped he would want to get the bag back for me. Joseph told me he would look into it because he was a concerned citizen and liked to help his neighbors. “Ok”.
Joseph showed up at the ministry a day later and said the word in the neighborhood was that the same Junior I had talked to, had the bag, but he was staying at his mom’s house in another neighborhood and not at his own. The leader said he was not sure because he had no proof, but Junior was inviting everyone to beers. He said there was nothing he could do. “Just spread the word that all I want are my things back. If they throw it over the fence or something, I will be grateful. I don’t want to press charges or accuse. I just need my other things.” He nodded and left.
It was my first time talking to a gang member and knowing they were one and it turned out he was fairly nice. He obviously knew me, and seemed like he could maybe have helped, but it was more to his benefit not to. After he left I assumed nothing would come of it.
I prayed and asked God what He thought. I prayed for my things to return, a long shot considering we live in Honduras. Things just don’t come back. But I felt in my heart they would. I remembered the story of Michael Howard, a missionary in Africa, when he was robbed. He lost all his ministry money as well and miraculously, God brought it back, even in Africa. I asked God, “When will I have it back?” My heart said “Friday.” Friday. I hoped it were true. I checked the cameras at the ministry all day Friday and at night, thinking it would suddenly appear on the patio floor, having been tossed over the wall. But at 11 p.m. there was nothing and I was tired.
Everything that I thought was important was in my backpack and now that backpack was gone. Our friends, the teachers, and the congregation were all worried sick over it, but I was strangely at peace. My normal franticness did not appear. What I had was a steady assuredness that it would all be ok. It wasn’t the first time we were in this situation. In our first year of ministry, we had been robbed by the student who was the closest to us. He left us with nothing and we had nothing. We survived. Two years ago, the thief broke in after sign-ups and after we had just sold a bunch of equipment. The ministry had more money than ever and we had big dreams to use the funds for blessing and advancing in some directions we had previously only dreamed about, when he broke in. He destroyed our offices, broke doors, the ceiling and all sorts of things so that not only were we robbed, but we needed to do costly repairs as well. We couldn’t figure out how he got in, so he broke in again and stole a group of new tools that took us years to finally get. They had arrived with my mom only a few weeks before and he grabbed them all. I prayed because I did not want to lose those. His mom ended up calling us because she found them hidden in her bathroom and we got them all back. He then disappeared and no one has seen or heard from him since. It was funny though. He was in my office could take anything he wanted. He took our money, but not all of it. He left the amount that I needed to pay the teachers what I still owed and nothing else. It was weird because all the money was together, but it was as if he didn’t see it or something. I could never ask him, so I believe it was God.
Every circumstance leading to the disappearance of my backpack seemed too coincidental for it not to be a plan. For example, I put my bag in the middle of the back seat, but it fell out the side. The door when it had opened on previous occasions, it had opened on a turn. Brayan had passed a turn in front of the ministry, but the door opened three blocks later on a flat part of the road. If the bag had fallen two blocks before, a member of our congregation would have found it and returned it to me, but it fell three blocks away in front of the riff-raff. Junior, our neighborhood thief, literally stepped out of his house the moment we drove by and probably saw the bag fall. He was able to take it without anyone seeing or suspecting. It was too convenient that no one but Angie went in the Toyota with us, that Angie for the only time ever sat on my lap in the front and no one could see the bag fall. It made me think that this was a planned attack at yet another strategic point in the ministry’s growth. Not only did I have MLV funds, but also bank books and construction funds. To the logic, this was the best time for this to happen if someone wanted to keep us from advancing. It should’ve been devastating, yet I felt ok. I almost felt free. It was as if everything that I based my life on was taken and I should have died, but didn’t. I was on the other side of the worst and I felt fine. In fact I felt alive. I felt free to worship the Lord and to trust in Him alone again, above all things.
Early in the morning, in that time between half awake and asleep, I was talking to God. He said “Romans 8:28. “ I asked him if that was for Bible study. “Romans 8:28,” He repeated. When I woke up I looked it up. “God works everything together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. “
The verse sang into my heart, into my soul, and to the center of my being and went, BOOOM! This is real! This is GOD. Suddenly my spirit awakened with a deep sense of who my Father truly is and his goodness.
The next Friday we were celebrating Angie’s birthday. We woke up early and decorated the whole patio. All our friends were coming over and we were going to have a great day. We got the whole place looking perfect, all the tables set, decorations hung, and then a huge storm cloud came and dumped on us. The patio briefly flooded, the decorations melted in the water, but the kids had a blast jumping on the trampoline in the rain. When it finally stopped we scrambled to rescue everything and make the best of it. I jumped in the car and drove to the ministry to pick up all our friends. As I was driving out of the ministry’s neighborhood with everyone piled in the car, my phone rang. “Hello?”
“Is this Brian?”
“We have your backpack…”
“Didn’t you lose a backpack?
“We have it. We found it in a garbage can. We can give it to you if you come to get it.”
“Where are you?”
“We are in the center of town. Come to the Burger King in 20 minutes and we will give it to you.
And we want a reward… you know… for returning everything. There is a lot of stuff in here. Receipts, and things and they look important.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “I’ll be there. “
I hung up the phone and explained the situation. Everyone was in shock, and then suddenly worried about me going alone. Three friends volunteered and my Mother-in-law, to go with me. Rina gave me 500 Lempiras, about $22. That was all she had for the “Reward.” And I left.
We entered Burger king and walked around looking for my backpack. No one had it, so I called the number that called me and saw a man answer it. I walked straight to his table. He was a 20 something kid sitting with his friend and eating a burger. When I explained I was in a hurry because it was Angie’s birthday, they wrapped up lunch and took me to their office where the back pack was. We walked a few blocks away and up a flight of lonely stairs and into a TV station. They explained that they had found the bag inside a trash bag in the bins of the station. They found my business card and called me. It was all so weird and surreal. They gave me my bag in a black trash bag, supposedly like they found it. I opened it up to see the contents as they patiently waited. Everything inside me said they were in on it, because no one would suspect a tied black trash bag placed in the garbage and randomly open it up. It didn’t make sense to me, but there was my bag with everything I had prayed for inside of it, including my computer charger. The money was gone, and so were my memory cards, batteries, and my old cell phone. But the receipts were there, my bibles, and even my heart monitor. I gave the seemingly phony heroes a smile and paid them their reward and left.
As I climbed into the Toyota with my bag, I remembered God said, “Friday.” I was just a week off.