Jason Wright: Man steals hope from an Ohio family

A man is caught on surveilance video taking a Christmas Jar from a Dover, Ohio, library in September. The suspect returned a portion of the estimated $1,000 taken with an apology note in the library’s drop box. A suspect has been arrested in the case. Surveillance photo

The tradition of giving away glass jars of slowly accumulated change, based on my novella, “Christmas Jars,” is celebrating its 10th birthday. Since its release, we’ve seen pickle, peanut butter, jelly and jam jars grow coin by coin until they amount to hundreds, even thousand of dollars.

We estimate the global Christmas Jars family has given away nearly $10 million in clean quarters and dirty dimes to families in need.

That’s a lot of couch cushion and cup holder change.

We’ve seen it all, including prayers answered by a knock at the door at the very moment hope was hanging by a silver piece of tiny, tired tinsel.

But we’ve never seen this.

Justin Litman

On Sept. 27, a man walked into the public library in Dover, Ohio,  and strolled out with a large community Christmas Jar containing an estimated $1,000 in cash and coins meant for a local family. Surveillance cameras captured it all.

The suspect, clearly identifiable in the footage, returned a small portion of the money in the night drop box with an apology note, but the damage was done and before long, he was in custody and stories were emerging about his past, his present and his uncertain future.

Pondering the man, the missing money and the thousands of Christmas Jar stories we’ve heard through the years, I realized if anyone would help the library and the suspect, it’s my readers.

We immediately launched a campaign to replace the money and soon I was driving to Ohio with an appointment to meet the suspect, Justin Litman, in prison. I wanted to sit with him for a few minutes and explain the origin of the tradition, share some of the inspiring miracles of the last decade, and help him understand when you steal a jar, you’re not stealing money.

You’re stealing hope.

“Christmas Jars” author Jason Wright and Northern Virginia Daily guest columnist holds a jar filled with money. Christmas Jar money is saved throughout the year for someone in need.

Meanwhile, the story went from a local-interest piece in Dover to making appearances in newspapers and on television stations  around the world. Everyone wanted to know what I’d say to the alleged thief when I visited him in jail and whether or not he’d even see me.

The fine folks who run the Tuscarawas County Jail were accommodating, but not optimistic. They explained that if I expected an inspiring change of heart, I was going to be disappointed.

On Oct. 26, I made the 300 mile drive to Dover and spent many of those miles imagining my meeting with Litman. What would I say? How would I answer his questions? Why had I come?

Upon arrival, I visited briefly with a news crew from Cleveland in the parking lot and jail lobby before checking in at the wide, bulletproof window.

Twice a guard went back to let him know I was there.

Twice a guard returned alone.

“He doesn’t want to see you.”

Back outside, I reflected with a reporter on the distance, drive and disappointment. I wanted Litman to know that the Christmas Jars community is the most forgiving family in the world. We root for him. If he changes his mind, I’ll drive right back to the prison from my driveway in Virginia.

Before leaving town, one of Litman’s relatives called me to report she’d spoken to her grandson and he wanted to apologize for turning me away. “He just feels so guilty and embarrassed,” she said. There are things everyone would love to be remembered for; stealing a community Christmas Jar isn’t one of them.

Fifty hours after rolling into town, I said goodbye to the community I’d fallen for and began the long trek home. Once again, the hours and miles gave me a chance to imagine what I’d say to Litman. Only this time, I was talking to the rearview mirror.

If I could sit in a cold steel chair across from the man accused of stealing that jar, I would tell him that forgiveness on the part of both the Dover and Christmas Jars communities isn’t optional. It’s required.

I would tell him that regrets are healthy, but only if they lead to change. And I would tell him that although I’ve never spent a night in jail, I’ve made my share of mistakes.

With clumsy words and clunky phrases, I would have explained that this life, down to every single minute of every single day, presents a second chance.

Today is a new sunrise, a new set of hours and a new menu of choices.

Neighbors, wardens and strangers on the street don’t get to determine his destiny. That right is divinely his, mine and yours.

This holiday season, as our Christmas Jars fill, may we remember that it’s not just about the change on the inside.

It’s about the prayers, hope, love, forgiveness and second chances that grow inside.

And for me? It’s about a man I still haven’t met, but that I’ll always be rooting for.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including “Christmas Jars,” “The Wednesday Letters” and “The 13th Day of Christmas.” He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or http://www.jasonfwright.com.