Handbags at Church

My beloved Drudge (what has been a more reliable, consistent presence in your life over the last two decades? Besides your beloved National Review Online, I would hope!) is highlighting a story about an immigrant whose purse was stolen in Pennsylvania when she went up for Communion:

UPPER DARBY, Pa. (CBS) - The 53-year-old victim recently lost her job, and she went to church to pray.

She wound up being preyed upon.

During Mass, the woman walked up to take communion at St. Laurence Parish.

As always, she left her purse in the pew. That’s when police say another woman grabbed it and headed out the door.

The victim, who is from East Africa, didn’t want to be identified.

“This is church and why it happened, something like that, it shocked me,” she said.

One of the worst images in the first world are of women clutching their handbags on the way to Communion. Sure, it is dismaying that anyone would steal your purse inside a church, but what troubles me more is this: What am I doing when I leave that church to make it so no one is desperate enough to do such a thing? Am I treating each person with love and compassion, rather than adding to the temptation to bitterness in his day?

There are all kinds of reasons one is tempted to crime, of course.  And we best be having policy debates worthy of the dignity of man about justice and subsidiarity and yes solidarity. But I am also not looking for some feel-good bill to be passed to make me feel better about evil. Ultimately, this gets back to what Bishop Malone was talking about on Friday at his installation: Are we letting God integrate it all in us from our rising to our rest and in our work? Are we trying to let him? Are we working to make sure it is not just prayer inside a church? Are we actively Christian? Not just in our parish, but in our lives? I can go to church everyday, follow the rules, and thensome, but if I’m not seeking to live it everywhere, always, it’s not fully living the call. I’m not living the gift. 

  • Marya

    You are being more charitable than I, in assuming that this theft was an act of desperation, and I will pray that God grants me the gift of a more charitable spirit. In a followup story to the original story linked by Drudge, CBS Philadelphia is reporting that there is video of the woman who stole the purse at the McDonalds where she and a companion used the stolen card. Also, there are eye witnesses in the church who saw the woman walking up the aisle looking in pews (so why didn’t someone stop her, is an immediate question, but maybe no one saw her actually taking the purse). So, if members of the public can identify her, and the police apprehend her, perhaps we’ll find out more about why she did what she did. At least she doesn’t seem to be a member of the parish.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    “What am I doing when I leave that church to make it so no one is desperate enough to do such a thing? Am I treating each person with love and compassion, rather than adding to the temptation to bitterness in his day?”

    I believe that here in the United States, if you interviewed each and every one of the population caught stealing a purse from a church, that a few would be composed of people whose Section 8 vouchers and/or AWDC / Social Security checks and/or WIC Program / Food Stamps have run out just at the end of the month; that they have sought assistance at nearby churches, social service agencies, volunteer crisis centers, food pantries, and soup kitchens, and not receiving the necessary help, remain in desparate straits and so are reduced to stealing . . . the rest – the majority – would be stealing for other reasons, I believe.

    Often, especially here in the affluent U.S., it is not easy to notice the desperation of a stranger. Sometimes the stranger may hide their desperation, specifically seeking that it go unnoticed so that they can blend in and more easily steal the money for the drugs and alcohol they need. I don’t mean that in a mean way: I am married to a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and have some other recovering alcoholics in my family. I love all of them. It is what it is. Booze and drugs cost money. You will do whatever you have to do to get them.

    Some other people may suffer from a compulsive behavior disorder (klemptomania), or they may have dementia, or their ability to distinguish right from wrong is otherwise impaired so that the inhibitions against antisocial acts like stealing, are deficient or absent.

    There but for the grace of God . . . go any of us.

    The thing about mental illness and addiction is that these are not conditions that a few dollars and a friendly chat over a cup of soup or coffee are going to cure. These are cancers upon the mind, and like a case of cancer of the body, unless the good God vouchsafes to work a miracle of spontaneous healing, the cure requires the equivalent of months and years of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, that is, often, in-treatment programs, followed by daily outpatient treatment, with medical and nutritional and behavioral support and meeting. AA meetings. Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

    This is a huge committment to make. Most physical cancer patients are willing to do whatever it takes to beat the disease. With the cancers of the mind – mental illness; addictions – this is not always the case. Mentally ill persons may be incapable of making a sustained, purposeful decision to seek that kind of life change, and follow it up day in and day out. And profoundly addicted persons may not yet be ready to say good-bye to their addiction.

    There is no question of a stranger in a church “making sure that no is so desperate” who is facing these circumstances, any more than a stranger in a church has it in his or her power to “make sure” that no member of the congregation is facing cancer.

    We don’t have that kind of power over others. I know. I’ve tried.

    A friendly chat and a trip out for lunch are great, but in the end mental illness and addiction require long-term professional cure.

  • Marya

    The police investigating the Philadelphia theft have a suspect, and they are characterizing her as a “career criminal” who is wanted for a string of thefts in the area. She works in health care, and is suspected of stealing credit cards from patients while they were being treated, and of using one card to run up charges while the patient was hospitalized. She’s also out on $50,000 bond for thefts in Texas. Her whereabouts are unknown, so it’s likely that she’s on the run. Prayers all around, for her and for her victims.

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