There was a mystery to be solved when I first moved into my house in the year 2000. Because the former resident had passed away and left the home to a local church, it was still filled with her furniture and housewares. I was all set with a dining room table and hutch, some end tables, and a few dressers. For a few months the church had provided the house for a young Korean pastor and his family. I suspect that the pickle jar that I use to keep my brown sugar in came from the original resident, but am pretty certain that the large kimchee jar that has been my flour container for 16 years came compliments of the pastor’s family. But one thing was mysterious — there was a full set of base cabinets in the kitchen, but the matching top wall cabinets were nowhere to be found. You could tell from the lack of paint on sections of the wall that there had once been cabinets, but I wondered with no explanation as to why they would have been removed.
“The neighbor stole them,” a young red-haired freckle-faced boy told me. He and his two older brothers - a sandy haired middle brother and a husky oldest brother with a crew cut - began to be fixtures around the block and were constantly filling me in on what was what in the neighborhood. Their uncle lived across the street. “He’s a warlock.” they told me. Until I realized they meant that he was a part of a motorcycle club known as The Warlocks, I was a little disconcerted. They were always full of stories that seemed far-fetched, so I was never quite sure what to believe. I totally dismissed their report of the stolen cabinets. They were incredibly helpful to have around though! In the week leading up to my trip back to Ohio to retrieve a moving van full of my belongings, they came through in a big way. That was by far the poorest summer of my life. I was paying off Visa with MasterCard and vice versa. The floor of my new home was a dirty and nasty linoleum. The original resident had a dog who had peed on the floor. In one spot where the linoleum was torn away, the dog pee had seeped down and gotten trapped between the linoleum and luan board below. My best hope was to pull off the linoleum and replace it with inexpensive linoleum tiles that I intended to put on a credit card. We decided to pull that one-portion of dog-peed luan up, and found below it some fairly impressive hard-wood floors! Rather than the expense of the band-aid fix of cheap linoleum, those three brothers helped me pull up all of the linoleum and luan and no time flat, leaving me with the hardwood floors we still enjoy today. With no additional cost, my floors were all ready to welcome my couches when they moving van arrived the following week.
The boys helped with all sorts of work around the house. When the house next door was up for foreclosure sale, I got the chance to peek inside for the first time. And what do you know — there were my top wall cabinets screwed into their kitchen wall! I probably spent hours on end with those three brothers, enjoyed their help, their company, and their proven inside scoops on the neighborhood.
It’s so funny to think about my original work crew and the condition of my house 16 years ago now that new construction homes are being built and sold for $250,000 and up on our block. At any given time you can hear the buzz of power tools putting up new houses all around us. When I moved in, half of the properties were abandoned houses or vacant lots. Now those same properties that were once trash-filled lots are fitted with granite countertops and high end appliances. The net worth of our block has skyrocketed! As a result, one of the major trends that we have noticed in recent months has been a surge of thefts in our neighborhood. Vehicles have been regularly broken into, and while abandoned houses were once a target for people looking to strip all of the copper pipes out of, all of the new construction in the area brings with it the allure of stealing new building materials. We’ve seen people walking down the street at night pushing a shopping cart full of lumber, certain that they picked it up from a local worksite and not The Home Depot.
Frank caught one such theft in-process earlier this spring. I had gone to bed early, but was rudely awoken when I heard his phone dialing on speakerphone and then a voice answering, “9-1-1, where is your emergency?” He had heard a noise from our living room and looked out the window to see someone loading building materials into the back of a car. He came up to our bedroom window for a better line of sight and gave the 911 operator details as we watched this guy make several trips through the alleyway coming from the back door of the house, loading up buckets of joint compound and other materials into the car. Another neighbor came out to see what was going on and ended up startling the guy before the police could arrive. The thief jumped in the car and sped away as Frank tried to read the license plate number.
It would end up being a long night for Frank. While I fell back asleep to ramped up thoughts of, “What nerve! I hope they get that guy!” Frank came outside to meet the police officer who came to our block, to chat with the neighbor who had startled the guy and to give a call to the builder who owned the house. The police caught up with the guy about a half mile away, and Frank was taken over to identify him. He was a skinny, scrawny guy — the physique of someone who has been choosing drugs over food. The police said he had no record, so who knows how many times he had done this before, but not been caught. He had no idea that Fletcher Street has a vigilant block captain and this was not a place where he could easily get away with his criminal activities.
A week later Frank got a thank-you letter from the captain of the 26th district, followed not long after by a subpoena to testify at the grand jury trial. Really, if it hadn’t been for Frank, not only would they have not likely caught the guy, but Frank’s good citizenship and follow-up by going to court would virtually assure that justice could be done. The district attorney assigned to the case had spoken to Frank several times to make sure he was really coming. A lot of times when people are arrested for theft, witnesses or victims don’t show up to see the charges through and defendants walk away without any consequences. This guy wouldn’t be so lucky with Frank Varaso on the case.
The night before Frank was to appear in court, he was hunting down a Septa token and his court paperwork in the cabinet. He read the subpoena out loud from the other room … address of the courthouse, time he was supposed to appear and the name of the thief. The name he said sounded familiar, and at first I thought he was saying the name of the District Attorney — “Wait, what did you say?” I asked him. He repeated the name again.
“That’s the guy?!”
“I know him.” I said.
“I know him. He’s one of my boys from when I first moved to the block. He and his two brothers used to come hang out with me and helped me a ton on the house.” It was the sandy-haired middle brother, the most tender of the three. Within a few minutes I had searched through my old photos and found a picture of him with a bunch of other kids at a Valentine’s Day party we had at a local church. Suddenly, my sense of “get that thief” justice was turned on it’s head, and my heart ached. The immediate thoughts were sobering and discouraging. As I continued to grapple with my heavy heart that night and into the next day, I started to perceive it in a different way.
My own walk of faith has been most profoundly defined as of late by my recognition of God’s pursuit of me. Whereas I have always felt the burden of mustering up enough faith and good behavior to be worthy of God’s grace, He has been showing me how any of my own efforts to bring myself or other people closer to him are negligible compared to the mighty pursuit He exercises towards the people he has made and loves. Formerly, I would have stayed in a funk, beating myself up for the failure of not sticking closer by this kid and having an impact on his life that would have spared him a future of drugs and crime. Instead, I suddenly recognized this moment of Frank’s life intersecting this young man’s life as God’s passionate pursuit of his heart. It’s amazing that this was the very first time he was caught and charged with a crime, and the man upon whose testimony those criminal charges depended is one who knows himself how God pursues and snatches us from the brink of the grave that drugs and crime have dug.
I printed that Valentine’s Day party picture up and sent it along with Frank. He had hoped to be able to give it to this young man, and share some words with him. This grand jury trial was only a few weeks after the fateful night, but already the sunken cheeks and wiry frame of this young man had begun to fill out on account of “three hots and a cot.” Even though he stared Frank down with a steely glare, he looked healthier and better in just that short period of time. I imagined my sweet Jesus snatching him up - grabbing him when he had his next fix in mind and placing him in the holding space of police custody to potentially spare his life and set him forward on a different path. Unfortunately Frank didn’t get to share the picture or any words with him, but we are still hopeful that this will be a situation of justice laced with mercy and an instance of God’s mighty pursuit.
We’ve heard no detail since that day, but guess that with charges filed and eyewitness testimony stacked against him, this young man will take a plea deal. I saw the all-grown-up red headed youngest brother just a few blocks away the other day, so I know his family is still around. Our hope and intention is that in the coming months we can connect with them and that they will come to recognize this reconnection as God’s goodness.
I would seem that next I should ask you to pray for him, and I certainly invite you to engage in conversation with God about this young man’s life and story. But mostly I want to encourage you to recognize that even though he had completely fallen off my my radar, God had plans to intervene in his life and pursue him. I didn’t pray for this to happen. I was in my bed snoring during a key moment that brought this story about. And yet the grace of God is so mighty and His jealous love so profound that I keep getting to be a witness to His goodness in my neighborhood. So this is my proclamation: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. And all the days of that young man’s life. And all the days of you, the reader’s life.” Amen.