“Did you hit some guy last night?” my housemate squatted next to the mat where I had been contentedly sunbathing, praying and reading all morning. In an instant the relaxing day-off I’d foreseen, where I get tan in preparation for my trip home, dissolved.
“What?” I asked confused.
“Tim*’s on the phone. Bert [our English class administrator] and the mayor are at the police station. Apparently they think you hit a guy outside of a mosque last night.” My heart started to beat uncontrollably. That’s not the story! What have I done?
Last night, after finishing a prayer time, I invited the two interns, Martha and Amelia, who are living at our house for the month to walk home with me. It was a cool night. The walk takes about 40 minutes and I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear their stories since I wasn’t here when they arrived.
We began the walk around 10pm. The island is incredibly safe and the most we have to worry about is being hit by a car while we walk down roads with no sidewalks. It’s Ramadan so people are out later, socializing after having broken the fast. We walked through the capital and entered my town. While descending the hill into town Amelia noticed that there was someone following us very closely. In fact, he was touching her. But the narrow street was crowded and she thought perhaps her discomfort was misplaced. Once we reached the bottom of the hill, this young man started yelling to another and making rude comments about us. I said something along the lines of “Rude” and Amelia confided that she’d been uncomfortable for a while now with that same guy walking so close to her. I immediately turned around and asked him what he was doing. He mumbled incoherently about “just going home”. I told him he needed to leave us alone. He should stop following us and just go. Being publicly called out like that in front of so many people should have been enough. But he just kept right on our heels. I certainly did not want him to follow us to our house, which was now just five minutes away, so I asked the girls to stop and see if he would pass us and keep going. He did pass us, but just to lean against a car several feet from us and stare out into the ocean nonchalantly. He was obviously waiting for us to continue on our way so he could take up his nefarious stalking again.
I stood there with these girls to whom I felt I great responsibility. How do I get rid of this guy? I decided that the best thing to do was to document his behavior so I could show Bert the following day and this young man could be reprimanded and instructed to leave us alone. So I dug out my phone, turned on the flash, walked up and snapped a picture of him.
With a slurred voice, he started yelling at me not to take pictures of him. He approached me but I would not back down and I forcefully told him to go, while pointing in the direction from which we’d come. If he did not want his photo taken then he needed to leave my friends and me alone. He came closer, all the while spewing threats and so I took another photo right in his face. When he saw the flash, he slapped my hand away. And that was where he crossed the line. An island man who had witnessed this interaction from across the street, ran over and began dressing him down. “Do you have no brains in your head!”
I quietly slipped away and ushered the girls down the street, away from that place, shaky but relieved that the situation had been taken out of my hands. As I passed some ladies selling oranges, they told me that this young man was not right in the head. He was “crazy”. That is the only reason he would act so badly, they reasoned. I thanked them and we arrived home shortly thereafter.
I prayed for this troubled young man before sleeping and for wisdom on whether to pursue the situation with Bert the following day or just forget about it. That decision was taken from my hands when Bert began calling me at 7am this morning. I, still sleeping, did not answer. I had plans to see him later that day anyway so whatever he needed, I rationalized, could wait until then.
However, it could not. And that brings us to the rooftop phone call, where Tim, my boss, was trying to figure out why Bert was calling him! How did the story get turned around into me hitting him? Why were they at the police station? Why was the mayor involved? Was I getting in trouble? After hanging up with Tim, I called Bert to find out.
He. Was. Mad.
I could tell because he only spoke in French, which meant he really wanted me to understand, although he spoke at a speed that was barely comprehensible. It was the speed of a man on the verge of a meltdown. If he spoke any slower I knew he would just explode!
He told me he was at the police station. He’d heard a man had threatened me last night, near his own shop, no less! This man isn’t even from our town. So he has been arrested. And the police are waiting for my statement. Could I please come to the station right away? I told him I would be there as soon as possible.
I grabbed Amelia and we headed out. Three influential men from my town were waiting outside the station for us: Bert, the mayor and a town councilor. They ushered us into a back room and we sat on a wooden bench placed in the middle of the room. Men in uniform filed in front and behind us along with the men from my town. We were asked what language we would prefer: English, French or local language. I said I could communicate in any, Amelia speaks only English but if we want the majority of people to understand without me bumbling around for words then we should speak in French. However, I think many of the officers saw it as a wonderful opportunity to practice their English so English it was.
We sat there and men bustled in and out of the room. Friendly banter ensued, Our island attire was commented on. And then our “assailant” was dragged in the room and flung on the floor at our feet. Amelia and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. He was worse for wear. The night before he had been dressed stylishly, with thick-rimmed blue sunglasses on his head and a swagger in his step. Now he sat on the floor, deprived of his stylish sunglasses, covered in dust and barefoot. But he did not cower. He glared at the officers who took the chance to kick him whenever they passed in and out of the room.
My heart hurt for him. What he did was not appropriate but it did not, in my mind, warrant this treatment. The commanding officer looked up from his computer, where he had been dutifully typing the report (of which I had not been asked a single question; not one person asked me what happened), and asked, “What do you want me to do with him?”
“Let him go.”
Incredulous, he demanded, “Let him go! Why?”
“Because,” I said, looking to Amelia for confirmation, “We forgive him.” She nodded her head enthusiastically.
“You are a lucky guy,” he said in English looking at the man sitting on the floor. Then looking back at me, “You may forgive him. But I do not.”
Time passed as the men in the room discussed amongst themselves what would be done. The mayor leaned over to me and asked me why I would forgive him. I told him that first of all, what he did was not serious. He did not hurt me. Secondly, Jesus tells us that when someone slaps us on one cheek we are to turn the other. He also tells us to forgive 70 times 7. As I looked from face to face in the room, they all nodded in seeming approval at my words, even though what I’d said was far from eloquent. I sounded like a kindergartener giving a Sunday school lesson with grammatically-incorrect and butchered French. But hey, they understood. Meanwhile, the man on the floor continued to offer insults to those in the room. He adamantly denied that he was crazy, which is what everyone was saying. He also told the police that he was not scared of them. And he did not want our forgiveness. He did not accept it!
One of the officers observing all of this from the window asked me why I would forgive someone who did not want my forgiveness. He went so far as to say it was impossible to do. If the person does not admit they have done anything wrong, then how can you offer them forgiveness? I explained that forgiveness is for the one offering it. Unforgiveness only hurts me. Whether he wants it or not, this man is forgiven in my eyes.
The mayor acknowledged the sentiment but went on to say that this man was not from our town. He is from a village on the far side of the island. They had welcomed him into the town as a brother but now he has treated us, the town’s guests, disgracefully. He is no longer welcome in our town. He would be kept in prison until his family from his village came to collect him.
Thanks were given all around and we were able to leave after a short introduction to the commandant. In the taxi on the way back I quizzed Bert as to how he found out what had happened and how they had found the man.
This morning, after morning prayers, all the men from my town gathered to hear the news about the “assault” on the town Americans. As the story passed from man to man, tempers rose. The young men of the town went on a hunt to find this guy. How dare he touch one of their Americans! Somehow they found him and dragged him into the street. Belts were removed and a beating was about to commence. That is when the important older men intervened. They saved this man from the mob and brought him to the police station for his own protection. Bert emphasized again and again just how angry everyone was on our behalf.
Just three days after my return from Kenya, this has been quite the welcome home. I have come to recognize some important things from this experience:
- I feel safer than before. From the man who intervened last night, to the mob who wanted to beat down a dude, I am protected by my town.
- I feel more loved than before. Even though I complain about the children pestering and the men flirting and the women gossiping, the people in my town are fiercely proud to have two Americans live here.
- My town is crazy. I say this in the best possible way. While much of Africa wrestles with tribalism, my island wrestles, or maybe embraces, town-ism. Your town is your clan. When we moved from the airport town to our current town, we were warned against the people of this town. “They are bandits!” And while all towns have some rivalry with one another, it seems that my town has a special reputation for being troublesome. As Bert told me in the taxi, “Our town youth like ‘noise’”- meaning, causing trouble.
- God can use any situation. Jesus says in Matthew 10:19, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious about what you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” In front of important and influential men, Jesus’s teachings were proclaimed today (even with poor grammar) because a possibly crazy, probably high young man decided to follow three girls home.
And so I reflect on all the crazies in this situation. The young man was accused of being crazy. Maybe I was crazy for provoking him. My town has a reputation for being pretty crazy. Mobs are always crazy. And I am reminded of Francis Chan’s Crazy Love when I say, ever so reverently, that only God is crazy enough to have orchestrated all of this for his own good purposes.
*all names have been changed