A criminal act is turning into a learning moment for a Bradenton pastor and her congregation.
After their Sunday offering was stolen last weekend, they are returning to Sunday services today offering forgiveness for the man who stole from them.
The theft occurred July 6th just after Pastor Hope Lee finished a sermon on justice.
"Just as you did it for one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me," she read from the Gospel of Matthew.
That’s when a young man in his 20s, wearing a blue shirt and nice jeans, walked in through the church narthex and took the accumulated tithes that had been transferred out of the offering plates. It's the sort of crime that left a lot of heads shaking.
"How desperate do you have to be that you would steal from a church?" asked Rev. Lee. "And so I think the lesson for churches is that we do have to be a little bit more proactive. We do have to be a little bit more aware. We want to think the best of people, but it doesn't always happen that way."
But she said the lesson for the people who normally sit in these pews is simple.
"The church should be a place of grace, it should be a place of second chances,” she said.
A sign in front of the church proclaiming that forgiveness is perfect is a way to take the message beyond the walls. In fact, the pastor tells me it was her congregation's idea to get this sign put up as quickly as possible.
The first-Sunday-of-the-month take could have easily topped $10,000, so the reverend readily admits it’s an expensive lesson that won't be over if Manatee County deputies ever catch the robber.
"So, yes, there is forgiveness," said the pastor. "But he's going to have to work through the consequences of those sins, whether that's personal or on a legal level. He's gonna have to address that."
I asked Lee if she'd want charges pressed if the suspect sees this story and returns the money.
She said it would depend on his demeanor, adding she's always waiting for someone to prove their character.
She and the people in her church are sure showing theirs.