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A Guest Who Left Behind an Important Lesson

Bea (probably not her real name) came to us via a battered women's shelter in Elizabeth City. Her story was not unlike many we have heard in the 11 years my wife, Mary Rider, and I have been providing hospitality at the Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House (formerly St. Martin House) in Garner. Bea said she was fleeing an abusive husband who, the last time he tracked her down, broke all her fingers and toes. She claimed he was a U.S. Marshal, and that when she complained about the abuse to his superiors, she got nowhere. A stout woman probably in her late 50s, Bea signed her name in our guest book, but told us little about herself. Besides her husband, Bea claimed to have no living relatives. We respected her desire for anonymity. We have never asked for identification from the scores of women in crisis who have come to this community seeking safe haven. Bea said she wanted to move to Alaska and change her name so her husband could never find her.

The first morning she came to breakfast, Bea placed a $5 bill on the kitchen table. She said she had found it in her nightstand drawer, and she was giving it to us. We told her to keep it. Bea quickly got a cashier's job at a restaurant within walking distance of the house. The restaurant owner, a kind woman, also took pity on Bea, paying her under the table so there would be no Social Security record for her husband to track. I was asked to give a reference for Bea, a person I had known just a few days. She seemed nice and trustworthy, I said.

A basically kind person, Bea kept mostly to herself. She did a little bit of work around the house. She taught my 8-year-old daughter, Moira, how to crochet, and she treated us to pizza one night.

To control bugs, we asked Bea not to eat in her room. However, a desire to be alone, and what I think was a compulsive eating disorder, kept Bea from following that rule, one of the few we have. She drank Diet Coke and smoked lots of cigarettes; her room was full of candy bar wrappers and empty potato chip bags. She seemed to be living her life in solitary fear.

Our family has often been in a quandary about what to do with our guests when we are going to be gone overnight. Our faith challenges us to welcome the stranger, but oft-times the strangers we welcome into our home are not well or trustworthy. We worry about the house getting burned down or other problems coming up while we're away. On too many occasions to remember, those staying with us have taken things. Our car was stolen once--by a homeless man we took in on Christmas Day. Money has gone missing, as have lots of other things. Most of the towels we started with in 1991 have all disappeared.

Other times, the women staying with us have had parties, and at least one was "renting" out her room to a teenage boy who she was sneaking in and out through the basement door. But, God is good. As quickly as things were stolen, replacements came in thanks to the kindness of friends--and strangers--who support the ministry. While we've had our share of dishonest people pass over our threshold, countless others have become friends, and a few visit after they have moved on.

A Mexican mother and her four children stayed with us for about six years. Today, three of her children are in college, and another is excelling in high school. Still living nearby, they have become like family to us. Which brings me back to Bea.

Both Mary and I had a good feeling about Bea, so in late June, when we left town for a 12-day trip to attend a retreat and visit family, we allowed Bea to stay in the house by herself. She was working five days a week, and she assured us she could take care of things like feeding the cats and bringing in the mail.

We had a friend who agreed to come by the house each day to check on things while we were gone. Two days after we left, we got a call that Bea had vanished. She called in sick to work, saying she was getting a ride to the hospital. Without much information about her, we had no way of knowing what happened to Bea. The WakeMed emergency room had not treated any one matching Bea's description. Since our friend noticed that most of the stuff in Bea's room was gone we figured she had gotten paranoid that her husband was closing in her, and she left in a hurry.

It wasn't until we got home on July 4, that my daughter, Bernadette, noticed the top was off the jar she used to hold her babysitting money. The jar, which had had more than $100 in it, was empty.

I looked around and noticed a bunch of rolled change--also more than $100 worth--also was gone. Other cups of change were all emptied out. Moira checked her jewelry box, and, alas, her Tooth Fairy stash of gold one-dollar coins had been cleaned out. Bea had rummaged through the house, taken what she wanted and left us with a sinking feeling in the pits of our stomachs.

It's a feeling we have come to know well; anger mixed with despair. This time our trust was violated by a grandmotherly woman who we welcomed into our lives--no questions asked. My 5-year-old daughter, Veronica, cried, and said, "I don't like Bea." Bernadette, 13, slept on our bedroom floor that night because Bea left with the key to the house, and Bernadette worried that she might come back and steal from us again.

We have all called the friends of our community to tell this story. Talking to friends in times of sadness is therapeutic. We also have used this experience to remind us of the important things in this life. Money is useful, but it must always be a secondary part of a well-lived, faithful life.

Each time we have been robbed, we have also been challenged by the irony of scripture, which states: "Do not save riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, save riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal. For your heart will always be where your riches are." (Matthew 6:19-21)

Like we do whenever we are betrayed, Mary and I have talked about ways to prevent this from happening again. In reality, we know there are no clear solutions. To be hospitable requires a certain degree of trust. To simplify our lives is one thing that would help. If we have nothing of value, we have nothing worth stealing.

For us, the most important thing is not to lose faith. Bea is a pathetic figure. She probably has no true friends as she moves from town to town, living a lie and ripping off the people who extend her a helping hand.

Sadly, all the things that Bea lacks in her life are the very things she could have had from us. We would have let her stay as long as she wanted, and we would have tried our best to treat her as family. The children would have poured out their love to her, and she would have made many friends. So, Bea, if you happen to read this, know that we hold no grudges against you. We forgive you, and you are still always welcome in our home.

"Catfish are hitting small bream, goldfish and big minnows on trotlines. White bass are hitting Roostertails."
--Excerpt from a fishing report from the Arkansas Game and Fish CommissionPlease send all tips, digs, cheers and fish recipes to: hart@indy week.com or call Richard Hart at 286-1972 ext. 134.

Trotline is illustrated by V.C. Rogers.

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