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Charity: 'They have stolen our hearts'

About $600 in aid items are taken from St. Vincent de Paul ministry.

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published March 14, 2007


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BRANDON - The thief shattered the window by the crucifix, slipped past the portrait of Jesus and laid hands on the file cabinet in the corner.

When the sun came up and the lights shone on Tuesday morning at the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, the cabinet was gone.

Althea Lee saw it coming.

Call it intuition.

Last week, after meeting a woman whose husband waited sour-faced in the car, after covering the family's $320 electric bill, Lee printed a prayer to pass among the ministry's workers.

We come to you today, Lord

To ask your blessing on our Ministry.

Shield us from the evildoers

As we do Your work.

For 30 years, the ministry has shown love to the poor, no questions asked, by passing out stamps and gas vouchers and gift cards to Wal-Mart and Publix.

For 30 years, those without have returned gratitude.

People like Indian Joe. Lee noticed him sweating and pacing outside the ministry about two years ago.

"Would you like some water?" she asked.

He said he would. She thought she saw the face of God.

She gave him a $10 voucher for candy, soda, whatever.

A few months later, a letter came. Please pass this on to another who may need it, Joe wrote. Attached was $10.

"We gave to honest people who needed help," Lee said.

"We still try to treat people that way," said Robert Martin, Nativity Catholic Church's director of finance.

"That," said employee Liz Schenk, "is getting harder and harder to do."

Things changed. Word spread about the help. The ministry will cover an electric bill, then 10 people show up with past-due bills.

Something unnerved Lee about the woman and her husband last week. Still, she decided to help. She invited the woman in and fished for gift cards in the file cabinet, the one with the lock by the picture of Jesus.

But she couldn't pray the evildoers away.

"We're supposed to see the face of God in everyone we see, so we give them the benefit of the doubt," Lee said. "But how can we help people when we're faced with this kind of ugliness?"

"They have stolen our hearts."

Lee knows who took the file cabinet and about $600 in gift cards and stamps. They cashed a voucher at the gas station up the road.

She wanted to confront them because she thinks people are not accountable in society anymore. She decided to leave it to sheriff's deputies to pursue justice while she wrestles with questions about grace and mercy.

She said she has decided to forgive. She has also decided to be skeptical, to listen to her gut.

She has learned lessons from that broken window.

"What surprises me is when you extend kindness to people and they give you gall," she said.

Then she pauses.

"I know now how Jesus felt."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813 661-2443.

[Last modified March 14, 2007, 01:02:08]


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