The Rev. John Patrick stepped down from his lectern Sunday morning in the Denmark Congregational Church and, while the grown-ups looked on, took a seat before the soon-to-be-dispatched Sunday school class.

“I have some bad news this morning,” Patrick told the eight children. “Look what’s missing.”

All eyes went to the empty space next to the church organ, where a week ago sat an old water jug nearly full of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and the occasional dollar bill.

“Where’s our jar of money?” asked Patrick.

Some of the kids already knew — news, after all, travels fast through this community of 1,131, a long 45 miles northwest of Portland. But some still had no clue what their pastor was talking about.

“Someone stole it,” Luke Sekera-Flanders, 8, finally replied. “They broke in the door and they took all the money.”

So much for the Christmas spirit.

For the past year, whenever collection time rolled around for this welcoming, live-and-let-live congregation, the kids tripped over one another to get hold of the two collection plates and nurse that ever-growing mound of money in the water jug a little closer to the top.

Their mission: To raise enough to buy an “ark” full of animals for a needy village someplace far removed from their postcard-worthy community tucked into the foot of the snow-covered White Mountains.

The money was to go to Heifer International, a nonprofit organization in Arkansas that provides impoverished communities around the world with livestock, trees, seeds and agricultural training — and in the process turns global dependence into local self-sufficiency.

An “ark” — a bonanza of cows, pigs, goats, sheep and a dozen or so other species — goes for $5,000.

By most estimates, the jar at the Denmark Congregational Church was fast approaching $1,000.

“When it hit $1,000, we were going to start a bank account,” explained Patrick, who in recent weeks took to calling children up to help him lift the jug while the rest of the 50 or so folks in the Sunday congregation applauded.

Now this.

Nobody knows who did it, although the talk around town is that whoever broke in sometime Thursday night came only for the money. Nothing else in the church was touched.

And much as he wishes he’d felt otherwise, even Patrick had to squelch his anger when he arrived at the church early Friday for the weekly hiking group, found the front door bashed open and headed down the hill to Jimbob’s Place to alert the morning coffee crowd.

“I’m human like everyone else,” Patrick said in an interview. “If you cut me, I bleed.”

DRAWING LESSONS FROM ADVERSITY

But Patrick is also a preacher — he’s been looking over this flock for the last eight years. And as Sunday approached, he knew he had a few very important lessons to impart.

Sitting in front of the children, Patrick said there are many ways to react to this kind of thing. And with a twinkle in his eye, he told them his first instinct was to give up.

“It’s not worth it and we should give up and just forget about it,” he deadpanned.

“No!” exclaimed little Luke, prompting smiles throughout the tiny sanctuary.

“You mean we should keep taking our collections?” asked Patrick.

“Yes!” chimed in Fergus Mason, 12. “And then get a safe to lock them in!”

Point well taken, Fergus. But Patrick was just getting started.

“After you think about it a little bit somebody was really desperate, weren’t they?” the pastor asked. “Somebody really needed what we have in here.”

Heads nodded.

“And they should have come to us, they should have come for help,” Patrick said. “If you don’t ask for help and you turn to something like stealing, instead of being closer to the people around you, you push them away. And then you’re more lonely — and then you become more and more desperate.”

Heavy lifting indeed for a Sunday school class. But lift these kids did.

Just before the weekly collection, Luke grabbed hold of a glass milk bottle sitting at his feet. His young shoulder sagging from the weight, he lugged the bottle by its red plastic handle to the front of the church and poured $58 in change into the Heifer project basket.

Then Fergus got up, grabbed a plastic bag full of coins and did the same.

LEARNING TO GIVE WITH GLADNESS

Fergus’ money came from the jar he and his dad use to collect change at the end of every day. And Luke’s?

“Me and my mom were supposed to be saving up for a computer, but I came up with an idea when I heard about how the church got robbed,” Luke later explained. “I thought about it and decided that I could restart the savings for the computer and give the money to the church.”

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Nickie Sekera, Luke’s mother, could see the angst on her son’s face as he got into the car with his milk jug and saw his year-long quest for his first-ever computer plummeting back to square one.

“I told him, ‘You have a choice right now. You haven’t given it away yet. You can keep that money,’” recalled Sekera. “And then I said, ‘But if you do this, you have to give it with gladness. If you do it with anger or sadness, it turns out not to be a gift — it turns into a burden.’“

Luke thought about it for a minute.

“I’ll give it with gladness,” he finally told his mother. “But can I just be sad for a minute?”

Luke’s misery had plenty of company. Down in Sunday school class, the kids took a few minutes to process what had happened — and how their pastor had advised them to deal with it.

“I understand (the thief) may have been desperate for it, but this church is a really friendly community,” said Carissa Trafton, 14, who’s spent her Sunday mornings in the 177-year-old church since she was in second grade. “They could easily have just come in here and asked for help and a lot of people would have volunteered to help them out.”

Ariel Fogden, 13, admitted she was still a little peeved.

“It’s a church!” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “You don’t steal from a church!”

KIDS HOPE THIEF WAS IN NEED

Chase Carus, 12, hoped out loud that whoever kicked in the door and made off with the Heifer project money “was someone who needed it and not just someone who wanted the money for no reason.”

Maybe they’ll get an answer to that one — and maybe they won’t.

Patrick said the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office is investigating, but has yet to come back to him with any leads.

But even as they start to refill another bottle — donations, by the way, can be sent to the Denmark Congregational Church, P.O. Box 816, Denmark ME 04022 — the kids had no problem tackling another tough question:

Show of hands — if the thief were to come to church next Sunday and asked for their forgiveness, could they do it?

Every hand went up — although Carissa also would like to see the money returned and Fergus hopes the thief would at least have the decency to “feel guilty about it.”

But forgive him? Of course they’d forgive him.

Observed Ariel, “It takes a lot of courage to actually admit that you did something wrong.”

Amen.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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