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Christmas redemption: How a Lansdale congregation forgave the man who vandalized their church

Christopher Rhoads vandalized a Lansdale church. Improbably, the congregation has embraced him.

Christopher Rhoads at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale.
Christopher Rhoads at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale.Read moreERIN BLEWETT

In October 2015, Christopher Rhoads broke into Lansdale’s Trinity Lutheran Church in the middle of the night. Drunk and deeply depressed, he smashed vases, spread donated jars of tomato sauce around the sanctuary, and ripped and burned hymnals.

On a recent morning, Rhoads returned. As light shined in through tall windows, he stood still and quiet in front of the white pews.

Even in the days after the vandalism, Rhoads said, he knew he wanted to repay the church. What he didn’t know was how much the church community wanted to help him, too.

For three years, Rhoads and Trinity Lutheran’s leaders quietly built a bond, first through a conversation at a court hearing and later in meetings at the church.

Then, earlier this month, writer and congregant Mark Staples thought it might be time to share this story of friendship and forgiveness. As the holidays approached and Rhoads completed his court sentence, Staples wrote a short story that included Rhoads' first public comments about his three-year journey, and it was published on a church website.

“Sometimes you get to tell stories that change you,” Staples said, pausing as tears welled in his eyes and his voice caught. He looked at Rhoads, seated next to him in a church parlor. “He’s an inspiration.”

Rhoads smiled.

“I don’t think I’m much of an inspiration,” he said.

Rhoads, 35, said he is a "way more balanced, more hopeful” person now than he was three years ago. Back then, the Lansdale native was working as a roofer and battling major depression. Each morning, he struggled to get out of bed. The mental pain felt like a heavy weight he couldn’t lift, he said. He drank to numb himself.

He doesn’t remember much about that October night three years ago, he said, but he recalls drinking at the Lansdale Tavern just down the street from the church.

In the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest, authorities filled in the pieces Rhoads doesn’t remember.

Just before 1 a.m., an intoxicated Rhoads was kicked out of the bar. So he walked down Main Street to Acme, where surveillance cameras captured him stealing a box of fire logs from outside the grocery store.

When Rhoads arrived at the church, he threw one of those logs through the window pane of a side door that led into a preschool classroom. He walked into the room, down a hallway and into the sanctuary, a peaceful, white-walled worship space with pews and an altar. In the rampage that followed, he caused almost $10,000 worth of damage.

Rhoads then fled to his nearby home, he said, and woke up with no memory of how the night had ended. He said the vandalism wasn’t religiously motivated — he imagines that if another building had been on the same property, he would have let out his anger there, too.

In the morning, facilities manager Dennis Smith said a co-worker told him the church had been vandalized overnight, and he called the police.

In his 21 years at Trinity Lutheran, Smith had seen the church vandalized before, but this episode was the most destructive.

His immediate concern: A funeral was scheduled to begin an hour later, and he had to prepare the space for the service.

Authorities soon zeroed in on Rhoads, who was arrested on felony burglary and vandalism charges. He eventually pleaded guilty, then withdrew the plea in order to be considered for a new mental-health treatment program that can lead to lesser charges. Rhoads was sent first to a mental-health treatment facility and then to jail.

In the days after the vandalism, some in the church were unsettled.

By the next Sunday, the episode had been reported by local media and it was the talk of the congregation. Pastor Paul Lutz said he decided to address it in his children’s sermon, a time in the service when he preaches to children, with their parents listening from the pews.

Lutz talked about the importance of forgiveness, he said, as he handed out cards that read “God loves you, and so do we.” About 25 children decorated the cards with colorful crayon drawings and personal messages, Lutz said.

Weeks later, as Rhoads' preliminary hearing neared, the pastor approached Smith with a question: Would Smith want to go to the hearing with him and give Rhoads the cards?

In the courtroom, the judge allowed Lutz and Smith to meet Rhoads and hand him their gift.

“You seemed a little stunned at first,” Lutz recalled with a laugh.

Rhoads said he was surprised that these men, whose sacred place he had damaged, were concerned about his well-being.

“I was just apologetic and relieved that they were willing to work with me," Rhoads said. “I just wanted to right my wrong.”

Rhoads gave the children’s cards to a relative at the hearing for safekeeping. When he got a chance to look at them after being released on bail, he said, he was touched.

One child’s drawing in particular has stuck with Rhoads: an image of a little boy drinking juice boxes with Rhoads.

In lieu of jail time, Montgomery County court offered Rhoads the chance to take part in Behavioral Health Court, a rigorous program focused on mental-health treatment. Had church leaders opposed this, Rhoads could have been sentenced to several years in jail, he said.

But Lutz and his congregation did not want to see Rhoads incarcerated.

“Once I met him and talked to him, I realized it wasn’t him,” Smith said, motioning to Rhoads, a dark-haired man in a flannel shirt and jeans. “This guy didn’t do this. ... I said, ‘It’d be a shame for him to end up in jail.’"

So Rhoads was entered into the innovative program. When he graduated from it earlier this month, his charges were dismissed.

He also started meeting with Lutz and Smith. Sometimes Lutz and Smith said they just wanted to check in and see how Rhoads was doing. In April, Rhoads started visiting the church regularly to pay it back for the damage he caused. Within a few months, using money he made working on a highway road crew, he paid the church $10,000.

Today, Rhoads lives 10 minutes away from the church in Hatfield. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and takes antidepressants. He works two jobs — as a dishwasher and maintenance man in a restaurant and, seasonally, for the road crew. For the first time in his life, he said, he feels authentically happy. He looks forward to visiting his grandparents in Pompano Beach, Fla., this winter and continuing his relationship with Trinity Lutheran.

Earlier in life, Rhoads said, he thought of religion as “fire and brimstone," and didn’t think religious people always lived by the virtues they preached.

“It’s opened my eyes to realize some people are like that,” Rhoads said.

Rhoads still doesn’t consider himself a religious person. He doesn’t attend services at the church, at least not yet, he said, but he has become more spiritual.

Through Behavioral Health Court, he learned coping mechanisms to deal with his depression. When he is feeling well, he said, he makes plans for what to do the next time he becomes depressed. It’s still a struggle every day to take care of his mental health, he said, but he’s learned to make peace with the up-and-down journey.

“I accept the things I’ve done,” Rhoads said.

Lutz and Smith have learned from the experience, too.

Smith summed the lesson up in three words: “Love thy neighbor.”

Lutz said he has learned the power of supporting someone as they struggle.

At the end of December, Lutz plans to leave Trinity Lutheran Lansdale after seven years as pastor. He doesn’t know what his next step is yet, but he said he will carry Rhoads' story with him.

In a recent meeting, he asked his staff to go around the table and share their most memorable experience of the past seven years.

Lutz’s, of course, was Rhoads' transformation.

During the pastor’s final Christmas sermon at Trinity Lutheran, he said, he will talk about unexpected angels. He will share the story of Rhoads and the church and the forgiveness cards, particularly the one from the little boy named Angel.

“It was a surprising aspect for Angel that his card meant so much,” Lutz said, “and it was a surprising aspect for Chris to find out that people cared about him and were willing to walk with him during that. I think that’s a Christmas story."