December 8, 2021, Our Lady’s Feast
Dear Incarnation Parishioners,
Greetings to you from church. I am writing about the report in the newspaper regarding an incident at church early Sunday morning. The following is many things: explanation, incident report commentary and theological reflection. It is a search for truth which can be difficult to fully determine and sometimes not briefly stated. Thanks for hanging and praying with it. But first, a bit of a story and an anecdote.
A Story about Joe
Joe was a man who visited Immaculate Conception Church, Botkins twice a year. He was homeless. I would know he was in town when I would see him in the back of church during 7:30 A.M. weekday Mass. After Mass he would pop back to the sacristy and we would have some breakfast at the rectory, food like eggs that a person with few teeth could eat. When he stopped in the winter, he would ask for whatever he needed, a coat, gloves, pants (we wore the same size), a food card or a ride to New Breman, the next stop on his journey where he knew he would find a church that would welcome and help him.
Even as Joe was always gentle and most times never asked for anything unreasonable, in our talks he relayed that, when the weather became unbearable, he would carefully and purposefully disturb the peace in some way so as to be arrested, where, incarcerated, he would have warmth and food for a time. I liked Joe. He stopped visiting a couple years before I came to Incarnation.
Things Happen In Parish Life
An anecdotal truth about life and perhaps especially parish life is that “things happen.” An accident or a break-in in the parking lot, skateboarders breaking a metal stair railing or cracking a curb, youth on a roof, an outdoor Blessed Virgin Mary Statue thrown through a church basement window by someone who had too many at Meyer’s Tavern down the block. How about a case in point.
Just two Friday’s ago, when I was walking around the church with Kit, a rectory cat, after locking up church at 9:00 P.M., I noticed a white, Ford pickup driving slowly along the front of school and stopping by the school’s main entrance. Kit and I made our way across the parking lot as I watched four high schoolers heft a toilet out of the pickup and take it toward the front entrance of school. When I greeted them, they put the toilet down. One of them greeted me back, calling me by name and said his first name, and that they had attended Incarnation School. I thanked them for attending our school and chatted them up a bit. Finally, I took a picture of their license plate and wished them a good evening. They left shortly thereafter.
THE INCIDENT THIS PAST SUNDAY:
Doorbells at Early Hours are Not Good
The doorbell woke me from sleep this past Sunday morning around 3 A.M. A sheriff sergeant relayed that there was an incident in church that needed attention. I put on some warm clothes and we headed over.
A Centerville P.D. unit doing a drive by of the property, spotted lots of papers out under the overhang of church. There was a man who had scattered bulletins, Christmas Kindness cards and every piece of our vestibule literature in and outside the vestibule. There was more paper than I would have guessed we had! In addition, he took every piece of vestibule furniture and the large picture of Mary and Jesus and angels on the north wall and had made a kind of barricade in the south side of the vestibule.
Nothing Belonging to Incarnation Touched
Even though he had access to the church, nothing was out of place in any way. As it turns out, none of the items he moved were even damaged. There were two things damaged and to me those appeared to be accidental. One of two little angels had a broken wing. (The angels did not belong to church. Rather, they appeared there about a year ago on the bottom bookshelf in the southeast vestibule.) The other item damaged was the glass in the 10 x 6 Washington Twp. beautification award frame.
After some investigation by the sheriff sergeant and deputies, we discovered that the outside, double doors to the basement must have been accessed by the man. The door may have been missing a bolt to secure it completely, something that has been corrected.
In the basement, he had gotten into some scouting supplies, eating a bit of tuna and peanut butter. In addition, he climbed into the large cold air return in that room and accessed the air handler room on the south side of the church. He put a couple of scout axes, a skillet and some other things under the stair grating in the air handler room. Aside from eating a bit, most all the activity of our visitor was a complete mystery. As the sheriff report stated, he was unwilling to explain or cooperate with officers. Therefore, one point of access seems to have been the outside, basement, double doors.
Church Doors, Locked and Perhaps Unlocked
Even as all church doors except the northwest door by the rectory are locked after the last Mass of the day, if someone goes out one of those doors during the day, it may not positively latch. Recall in last week’s bulletin I asked that adorers please leave church when we lock it. In this manner, we can be sure all doors are positively locked. I have experienced this same “locked but not locked” problem in every church I have pastored. A locked, but unlocked door may also have been our visitor’s access.
About an Hour
Once I saw the paper mess that had been made, I called over to ask for Fr. Ignatius’s help. When pictures were taken and the investigation ended, he and I began straightening things up. It took us about an hour to pick up and arrange our church bulletins and cards, to put all furniture back where it belonged and to vacuum.
A Note about Police Reports
Even as we are blessed by and greatly appreciate the outstanding protection and service offered by The Montgomery County Sheriff and Centerville P.D., police reports are imperfect. Even as a deputy/officer strives to be exacting and objective, reports are also subjective. Mistakes are made.
Not During Mass
For example, the report states that our visitor accessed church “during Mass.” That could have happened. However, I don’t think that likely. There is no basis in any evidence that access was during Mass, which is an imperfection in the report. As well, the door of access is unknown from evidence.
Not in My Mind Desecration
Even with dozens of incidents of vandalism in the churches I have pastored over the past 21 years, I have never experienced what I would call “desecration,” the charge made against our visitor. I consider desecration harming the inside of church proper, especially any harm in the sanctuary or defacing of the façade with vulgarities. In this incident, aside from a mess, nothing holy from church was harmed. The angels and the award were gifts to us and not a part of worship or devotion.
However, the law specifically defines the charge of desecration: to “purposely deface, damage, pollute or otherwise physically mistreat a place of worship.” Our incident fits the law’s definition. After talking with law enforcement this past Monday, I agreed that it would be wise for the prosecutor to work toward a more serious charge than vandalism or breaking and entering in hopes that such a charge would allow our visitor to receive the possibility of more complete psychiatric evaluation and mental health services.
For me even at this early stage, there are several takeaways from the incident:
- Jesus is our ultimate security.
- Jesus is Lord of all, the rich, the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill.
- We are blessed to have the Montgomery County Sherriff and Centerville P.D. to protect and serve us.
- We need to work with law enforcement, because “the system,” even if imperfect, can be a vehicle for help and Jesus’ grace.
- We need to be wise about earthly security and at the same time refer back to the first bullet in this list so that we don’t become obsessive/compulsive about earthly security.
- To scapegoat any group is never “a good”. Sure, when we scapegoat, we may appreciate the deceptive feeling of being more secure. However, scapegoating’s only accomplishment is disrespect and injustice to Jesus, others and to ourselves.
- Even as we can figure out much, and control many things in life, mystery and powerlessness are also prime players in our lives. Our Catholic Christianity offers outstanding avenues to wrestle with and be hopeful and even joyful in the face of mystery and powerlessness.
As always, if parishioners would like to talk or have concerns, you can contact me directly or talk with a pastoral council or education commission member. May we pray for those who serve us, those we serve and especially for those Jesus preferred, the poor, ill and lost.
Sincerely and With Love in Christ,
Rev. Patrick Sloneker