December 18, 2018

Once he vandalized a church; Now they share a hopeful bond

‘What I did probably saved my life because I got the help I needed.’

By Mark A. Staples

Reunions are commonplace during the holidays, but the one that took place between Christopher Rhoads and leaders of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansdale in early December could not have been imagined three years ago.

Early on the morning of October 5, 2015, Rhoads, intoxicated and severely depressed, broke into Trinity and extensively vandalized the church, inflicting thousands of dollars of damage. The story received wide-ranging media coverage. Rhoads has since completed an intensive rehabilitation program and made restitution to Trinity. And the congregation has learned a deep lesson about the power of forgiveness.

“I honestly don’t remember much about that night,” Rhoads, 35, said in a December interview. “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, he thinks that horrific vandalism act marked a turning point. “It may have saved my life because I got the help I needed.”

Many days later, following his arrest, Rhoads was brought to a preliminary hearing. “I was taken back to see that the pastor (Paul Lutz) and Denny Smith (facilities manager for Trinity) had come to the hearing,” Rhoads said at the interview. “What I found from them was forgiveness and acceptance. I had always thought of religious groups as more fire and brimstone. It really opened my eyes. I am more spiritual about the way I look at things now. I have not been a religious person myself. But now I am more accepting of the basis for religion.”


“What I found from them was forgiveness and acceptance. I had always thought of religious groups as more fire and brimstone. It really opened my eyes. I have not been a religious person myself. But now I am more accepting of the basis for religion.”

— Chris Rhoads


At the hearing Lutz and Smith gave Rhoads a collection of cards from Trinity children with the template message saying “God loves you, and so do we” on the covers. Each card had a child’s personal message or drawing. “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 from a little child standing beside me and holding my hand. It was so nice.” Rhoads still has all the cards in his Hatfield, PA, apartment not far from the church.

Chris Rhoads at Trinity, Lansdale, which he once vandalized.

Chris Rhoads at Trinity, Lansdale, which he once vandalized.

(The card Chris most remembered was from a little boy named Angel, now 10, who was attending Trinity at the time with his family. Angel was then part of Trinity’s Sunday school. Reached about this story, Angel and his Mom said they were touched to learn about Chris’s story and to know that Angel’s 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,” Angel said. “Now, I am so happy for him.”)

The children decided to write the cards to Rhoads after hearing a children’s sermon on forgiveness from Lutz following the vandalism. Lutz made it clear then and since that by encouraging Rhoads to get the help he needs he was simply enabling the church to live out its mission in Christ to reconcile God’s children and bring healing to the world. “We were just asking Chris to take responsibility for his actions and get the help he needs,” Lutz said. “And we heard from him that he was committed to doing those things and now seems to have done them.”

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

Rhoads says he knew right away he needed to reach out further to the church and make restitution payments for the damage he had 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.”

The Montgomery County Court system offered Rhoads the opportunity to enter an innovative Behavioral Health Court initiative to get help. “They explained to me it would be rigorous,” Rhoads recalled. “The initiative would involve three phases over 18-24 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 remember being required to go in one Christmas 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.

“This program was a good thing for me obviously, 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,” Rhoads said. “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, and before I simply was not equipped to deal with them and the challenges of everyday life.

“I am truly happy now,” Rhoads said.

On the day he was interviewed, Rhoads graduated from the Behavioral Health Court in a simple ceremony in Norristown, PA. “That means I will no longer be under court supervision, and I will not be monitored with therapy,” Rhoads said. “After an additional six months without any new charges or difficulties, any charges against my record will be expunged.”

As for Trinity, about a year after the vandalism episode Rhoads called Pastor Lutz to arrange for a meeting. “I was then permitted to contact the church,” he said. “I wanted to thank the pastor and Denny for their forgiveness. I wanted to discuss with them the terms of making restitution.”

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


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

— Alex Hanna


Beginning April 1, 2018 Rhoads began faithfully visiting Trinity’s church office, where he gave Church Accountant Cathy Pezzuti payments that concluded Nov. 1 –$10,000 altogether. During most visits he would search the church to find Denny Smith to greet the facilities manager and thank him and the church for supporting his three-year journey to better health.

Rhoads, Lutz, and Smith

Rhoads, Pastor Paul Lutz, and facilities manager Denny Smith meet again.

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

Rhoads explained that he was able to make the payments because of his work on paving projects while employed in the spring and summer of 2018 by a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) subcontractor. Unfortunately, that work is seasonal, and Rhoads has been laid off for the winter. “I’m a construction jack-of-all-trades,” he explained. He once worked in Biloxi, MS, doing flood recovery repairs after Hurricane Katrina, and he dreams someday of perhaps restoring homes and selling them for a living. Currently he has a maintenance job.

Alex Hanna, a congregation council member when the vandalism occurred, thinks Chris’s story teaches the significance of 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 says. “The faith that is expressed becomes a life-changing force in one who apparently was suffering greatly. 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.”

The author of this story, a career-long writer and one-time co-president of Trinity’s council, said Chris’s story is having an impact on those at Trinity who are hearing about it — and on him. “I’ve been blessed to write stories about God’s people all over the world for more than 50 years, but this story is different. You think you are reaching out to someone else in need or in trouble because it is part of the church’s mission in Christ. What you discover or rediscover along the way is it is you who also gets profoundly changed. Hearing Chris relate his story and how Angel’s card touched him so powerfully is truly inspiring. Writing about him has been an incarnational happening, God come alive for me in a new way. I can’t fully explain it. The experience has often brought me to tears of gratitude. Christmas will be different for me this season.”


“When I drew the card the main thing I was thinking is that I hoped Christopher would get well. Now, I am so happy for him.”

— Angel


As for his immediate future, Rhoads looks forward to spending time soon in Pompano Beach, FL, helping his grandparents make household repairs and enjoying the warmer weather. “I used to focus on the negative. I used to be very indifferent about things,” Rhoads explained. Now, thanks in part to Trinity, Rhoads says he has much more of a spiritual, hopeful perspective.

Advice for others in the predicament he once knew? “The Behavioral Health Court isn’t for everyone,” he said. “I have recommended it for some. But the reality is it’s a big commitment. You have to recognize that something is broken in yourself that needs fixing. Otherwise it won’t work.”

 

The writings of the author, a member of Trinity Church, have appeared in publications of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and American Baptist Churches USA. Photos are by Keith Clemens.