Few could have imagined the reunion that took place this past December between Christopher Rhoads and leaders of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pa.

Early on Oct. 5, 2015, an intoxicated Rhoads broke into Trinity and vandalized the church, causing thousands of dollars in damage. The story received wide-ranging media coverage.

“I honestly don’t remember much about that night,” Rhoads said. “I knew where I was some of the time, but I had nothing against the church or religion. If Trinity had been a nearby shoe factory, I probably would have done the same thing.

“I was angry and depressed and in a very dark place. I had thought many times about taking my life, and at that point I was closer to ending things than not. I did not see how I could live through another winter.”

Now, looking back, Rhoads thinks that event marked a turning point: “It may have saved my life, because I got the help I needed.”

Following his arrest, Rhoads had a preliminary hearing and was startled to see Paul Lutz, then the church’s pastor, and Denny Smith, its facilities manager, in attendance. They gave him a collection of cards made by Trinity’s children.

“They wished me luck, or hoped that I would feel better,” Rhoads said. “The children obviously genuinely cared. Some of the messages and drawings were in crayon, and one I remember, in particular, is of a little child standing beside me and holding my hand.”

On the outside the cards said, “God loves you, and so do we,” and each had a personal message or drawing. The children wrote them after hearing Lutz deliver a children’s sermon on forgiveness following the vandalism. Lutz had stressed that encouraging Rhoads to get the help he needed was simply the church living out its mission to reconcile God’s children.

Warren Ditzler, co-president of the congregation council at the time, remembered the governing body’s decision not to press charges over the incident. “That decision was all about our being a community of faith—living out our faith by loving our neighbors,” he said.

Forgiveness and redemption

The Montgomery County court system offered Rhoads the opportunity to get help through its innovative Behavioral Health Court. “They explained to me it would be rigorous,” Rhoads said. “The initiative would involve three phases over 18 to 24 months. In the beginning, each Monday I saw a judge and team, including probation officers, a doctor and psychiatrist. I regularly called in for drug testing at 4 a.m. and frequently submitted to mandatory tests that same morning.

“I took part in regular group therapy and what is called a Wellness Recovery Action Program, featuring both group and individual therapy. I went through drug counseling. In the beginning it was every day. As I made progress, the process became less demanding by stages.”

Rhoads said he wanted to reach out to the church right away and make restitution for the damage he’d done. “I knew I had not lived out the values I was raised with,” he said. “But the terms of my bail prevented me from reaching out as soon as I would have liked.”

“This story is an example of the positive impact forgiveness and love can have on someone—and really any of us.”

About a year after the vandalism, Rhoads was allowed to contact the church, and he called Lutz to arrange a meeting. “I wanted to thank the pastor and Denny for their forgiveness. I wanted to discuss with them the terms of making restitution.”

Lutz said, “He was a completely different person from the Chris Rhoads I saw the first time.”

Beginning April 1, 2018, Rhoads began regularly visiting the church to give payments to accountant Cathy Pezzuti. The payments totaled $10,000 and concluded Nov. 1, 2018. During most visits, Rhoads would seek out Smith to thank him and the church for supporting his three-year journey to better health.

“This outcome is a lot better than seeing someone like this thrown in jail,” Smith said. “Who among us hasn’t made mistakes in life?”

Rhoads has graduated from the Behavioral Health Court, which means he is no longer under court supervision. Last spring and summer he paved roads for a subcontractor of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and he dreams of someday using his construction skills to restore and sell homes.

“This program was a good thing for me, obviously,” Rhoads said, “not only because I could avoid jail and could also hope for any charges against me to be expunged if I followed through, but also because the process really changed me and helped me realize a lot of things. I didn’t plan for my future before. Now I do. I am no longer depressed. I have learned how to deal with the problems of life. I am truly happy now.”

Rhoads still has the cards he received from Trinity’s children. The one that struck him the most, with the drawing of him and the little child, was made by Angel (last name withheld), a boy who attended Sunday school at the time of the vandalism.

Angel was touched to know that his card had made such an impression. “When I drew the card, the main thing I was thinking is that I hoped Christopher would get well,” he said. “Now I am so happy for him.”

Alex Hanna, a council member when the vandalism occurred, thinks Rhoads’ story illustrates God’s redemptive power. “This story is an example of the positive impact forgiveness and love can have on someone—and really any of us,” Hanna said. “The story should give hope to all that a loving act can be the inspiration to open a heart that has been shut to God’s grace.”

Mark A. Staples

Mark A. Staples is a member of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pa. His writing has appeared in publications of the ELCA and American Baptist Churches USA.

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