It was a Toyota Corolla car, grey color. Gently used, it looked band new. The mileage on it was only 23,000. The friendly owners, an elderly Filipino couple, were my next door neighbors with whom I was attending Grace Community Church in Panorama City. Old enough to be my parents, they fondly called me “My Son”.
Afraid of dying in America, they wanted to sell their belongings and moved back to the Philippines. They offered to sell me their Toyota car, but I didn’t have a driver’s license.
“Son, get the car first and you can get a driver’s license later. You are going to need it. It’s difficult in CA without a car”.
Though their kind gesture was sincerely appreciated, being new to America, and having just started working not too long ago, I didn’t have enough money saved up for a car.
“How much do you have? Give us whatever you can afford. The car is worth a few thousands, but we want you to have it. Just give us whatever you have…anything—even if it’s a dollar. It’s our gift to you. You are like a son to us and we like you very much. You are a good boy. We want to bless you with the car”.
Deeply touched, I emptied my wallet. They gave me the keys and the pink slip for the car.
Kelvin and I were friends. We met at the Universal Education Institute (UEI) in Van Nuys, the vocational school where I was learning computer skills. He is married with three kids. When I told Keith about the Toyota car, he sounded happy for me. He offered to teach me how to drive, so I could get a driver’s license.
He told me that driving his wife to work and picking her up before coming to school was getting too stressful for him. They needed two
cars. So, he asked if he could borrow my Toyota, while I worked on my driver’s license. He promised to return it when I passed my driving test.
Sure, why not! That's what friends are for, after all. Trusting him completely, I handed him the keys to the car.
Sadly, I was wrong about Kelvin. He moved his family from Van Nuys within a week, and I never saw my car till this day.
Hearing what happened, my Bible Study Group felt terrible for me. They thought Kelvin had taken advantage of the fact that I was new to
America. Unbeknownst to me, two members of the group were police officers. They vowed to track Kelvin down and get the car
back. However, on one condition: I must come to the police station and declare the car stolen.
“But he didn’t steal it; he borrowed it”, I reminded them.
“Well, Brother Peter, the choice is yours. Either you declare the car stolen and the police get involved, or you don’t get your car back”.
Sensing my uneasiness, they took time to explain things to me. The police cannot interfere in a civil situation between two consenting
adults. If I insisted the car was borrowed, then it was not a crime. But if I filed a report saying the car was stolen, then Kelvin had committed a crime, which would give the police the ground to go after him.
“Supposed I declared the car stolen, what would happen to him?”, I asked.
“Somebody stole your car and you still care what would happen to him”?
The officer shook his head in disbelief.
“Well, he will go to jail. He will be arrested, and charged. If he’s found guilty he’ll go to jail. And that ruins his life, because once he has a
criminal record nobody would want to hire him when gets out of jail. Chances are he might end up a homeless man”
“So, what are you going to do. Are you declaring the car stolen or not? You need to act before too late”, advised the second officer.
I was speechless. All of sudden, the entire gathering of eleven people was dead silent, so quiet one could hear a pin-drop. Some of the
women felt so sad for me, I could see tears falling from their eyes. Yes, I wanted my car back. But I also didn’t want to ruin Kelvin’s life. I didn’t want him to go to jail and have a record that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He had three children. I love them, and I didn’t want them to grow without their father.
While everybody in the room was waiting for me to say something, I kept wrestling with the decision I was about to make. Would they think I was stupid if let go? I began to ponder my values. Is it worth it—to ruin somebody’s life for a car? Is that what Jesus would do? I’m I not supposed to be a Christian? And forgive? What kind of Christian do I call myself if I wouldn’t forgive somebody who ran away with my car? After all, it’s just a car. I could buy another car, but would I be able to reverse his criminal record?
And how about myself: I’m I perfect? I may not have stolen a car, but I certainly have hurt people in other ways. I have said things that I wish I never said. I have done things that I was not proud of. I have wronged people who graciously forgave me. So, why shouldn't I forgive him?
Then came the tears from my own eyes. But I was not crying for the car. I was crying because I was feeling sorry for Kelvin. How sad and painful must his life be if he felt that he needed to steal my car! He needed help, not jail.
Finally, I told the group: “I’ll let go of the car”. I would not ruin somebody’s life because of a car. It’s just not worth it. I wanted to be the change that I wanted to see in the world. There were already too many people in jail; too many felons on our streets without hope; too many kids visiting their fathers in jail. I didn’t want to add to the statistics. That’s simply not the kind of karma I wanted to create.
Peter Opa is the director of The Ajara Project (www.ajaraproject.org). He lives in California.
To protect their identity, the names mentioned in this article (other than the author's) have been changed.