by Jim Forest
“If it bleeds, it leads” was one of the first proverbs I learned as a young journalist. It’s hard to imagine a front page of any daily newspaper without headlines reporting bloodshed: domestic violence, shootouts, terrorist attacks, and war. Life-saving actions, if reported at all, tend to go to the inside pages. Stories that keep us in a state of fear have first claim on page one.
A particular non-page-one story comes to mind. It involves the sort of dangerous encounter that no one would wish for: the invasion of one’s home by a man armed with a deadly weapon.
Such an encounter happened in one isolated household in February 1984.
At the center of the story are Mrs. Louise Degrafinried, 73 years old at the time, and her husband, Nathan. They lived near Mason, Tennessee, a rural community northeast of Memphis. Both were members of the Mount Sinai Primitive Baptist Church. The other key participant was Riley Arzeneaux, a former Marine sergeant who had been serving a 25-year prison term for murder. He was one of five inmates who had escaped from Pillow State Prison several days before.
Once on the run, Riley had gone his own way. Somehow he had obtained a shotgun. He had been sleeping rough. It was winter. There was ice on his boots. He was freezing, hungry and exhausted. Having come upon the Degrafinried home, Riley threatened Louise and Nathan with his shotgun, shouting, “Don’t make me kill you!”
Now comes the astonishing part. Louise responded to their uninvited guest as calmly as a grandmother might respond to a raucous grandchild. “Young man,” she said, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t believe in no violence. Put down that gun and you sit down. I don’t allow no violence here.”
Riley obediently laid his weapon on the couch.“Lady, I’m hungry,” he said. “I haven’t eaten in three days.”
Louise asked Nathan to please get dry socks for their guest while she made breakfast. Within a few minutes she prepared bacon and eggs, toast, milk and coffee, setting the table not only for Riley but for Nathan and herself. A striking detail of the story is that she put out her best napkins. When the three of them sat down to eat, Louise took Riley’s shaking hand in her own and said, “Young man, let’s give thanks that you came here and that you are safe.” She said a prayer and asked him if there was anything he would like to say to the Lord. Riley couldn’t think of anything so she suggested, “Just say, ‘Jesus wept.’” (Luke 19:41)
Later a journalist asked how she happened to choose that text. She explained, “Because I figured that he didn’t have no church background, so I wanted to start him off simple; something short, you know.”
After breakfast Louise held Riley’s hand a second time. She had asked about his family and learned of the death of his grandmother. Riley, trembling all over, said that no one in this world cared about him. “Young man, I love you and God loves you. God loves all of us, every one of us, especially you. Jesus died for you because he loves you so much.”
All the while the police had been searching for the Riley and the other four convicts. Louise had been on the phone when Riley arrived. As a result of the abrupt ending of the call, her friend had alerted the police. Now they could hear the approaching sirens of police cars.
“They gonna kill me when they get here,” Riley said. Louise told Riley to stay with Nathan while she went out to talk to the police.
Several police cars had surrounded the house. Guns ready, policemen had taken shelter behind their cars in expectation that Riley might open fire on them. Instead they were face to face with an old black women, Louise Degrafinried. Standing on her porch, she spoke to the police exactly as she had spoken to Riley. “Y’all put those guns away. I don’t allow no violence here.”
Apparently Louise is one of those people who speaks with a voice-from-heaven authority. The police were as docile in their response as Riley had been. They put their guns back in their holsters. With their arms around Riley, Louise and Nathan escorted their guest to one of the police cars. He was taken back to the prison. No one was harmed.
The story of what happened to two of the other escaped convicts is a familiar tragedy. They came upon a family preparing a barbecue in their backyard. The husband, having heard about the escaped prisoners on the radio, had armed himself with a pistol. He tried to use it but was himself shot dead. The men took his wife hostage, stole the family car, and managed to drive out of the state before they were captured and the widow was freed. Another of the five, Ronald Lewis Freeman, was killed in a shoot-out with police the following month.
The story does not end with Riley’s return to prison. Louise and Nathan were asked to press charges against Riley for holding them hostage but refused to do so. “That boy did us no harm,” Louise insisted. As the couple refused to testify, the charges were dropped.
Thanks to the Degrafinrieds, Riley’s life was not cut short nor was anyone harmed, though twenty more years were added to his prison sentence for escape. Louise initiated correspondence with Riley. She asked for his photo and put it in her family album. Throughout his remaining years in prison — he was freed in 1995 partly thanks to her — Louise kept in touch with Riley and he with her.
“He usually called on her birthday and around Christmas time,” Louise’s daughter, Ida Marshall, related to a journalist after her mother’s death in 1998. It was Ida Marshall who wrote Riley with the news of Louise’s death.
Louise had enormous impact on Riley’s life. “After looking back over all my life in solitary, I realized I’d been throwing my life away,” he said in a 1991 interview. He remembered praying with Louise Degrafinried when she came to visit him in prison. “She started off her prayer,” he recalled, “by saying ‘God, this is your child. You know me, and I know you.’” Riley responded, “That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with God.”
In 1988, Riley became a Christian. “I realized,” he explained, “that meeting the Degrafinrieds and other things that happened in my life just couldn’t be coincidences. After all that, I realized someone was looking over me.”
Louise Degrafinried was often asked about the day she was help hostage. “Weren’t you terrified.” “I wasn’t alone,” she would respond. “My Savior was with me and I was not afraid.”
This is similar to a comment Riley made when explaining the events that led to his conversion. “Mrs. Degrafinried was real Christianity,” he told mourners at her funeral. “No fear.” Riley sat in the front pew at the service and was among those carrying Louise Degrafinried’s coffin to its burial place.
Riley Arzeneaux now lives in Nashville. The last I heard, he was working as foreman at a local business. He and his wife have a son.
I cannot say this is the end of the story. The consequences of that extraordinary encounter in Mason back in 1984 are still with us. The ripples keep going wider.
There is a lot of implicit theology in what happened that day. A large part of the Gospel is woven into this story.
One of the most striking elements in the story is hospitality. Far from begging for their lives, the Degrafinrieds focused their attention on receiving Riley into their home. They put clean, dry socks on his feet. They put out their best napkins. They cooked for him and ate with him. They held nothing back. He was addressed in caring, disarming terms — Louise prefaces much that she says with the words, “young man.” They prayed with their guest and invited him to pray. When Riley couldn’t think of a prayer, Louise proposed the shortest versew in the Bible, two words that connected Riley directly to Christ’s tears: “Jesus wept.” Indeed Jesus weeps for Riley and all those like him, people who have lost their way in life and become a hazard to themselves and others. Riley was made safe in the Degrafinried home and then his hosts protected him from the police. Even when he was back in prison, the hospitality continued. Far from thanking God they have survived Riley’s visit and hoping never to see him again, the Degrafinrieds came to regard Riley as a member of the family. His relationship with Louise and Nathan has even been taken up by their children. Riley was given a place of honor at Louise’s funeral, was called on to speak, and joined family members in carrying her body to its final resting place. Not long ago, Riley was a guest speaker at the Mason elementary school. He was invited by the principal who happens to be one of the Degrafinried children. The hospitality that Riley experienced years ago continues to this day.
Hospitality is an essential dimension of Christian life. We experience the hospitality of Christ each time we receive communion. The church is a community of eucharistic hospitality. Hospitality has to do with our willingness to make room in our lives not only for those who in some way are related to us — spouses, children, relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employers — but for strangers, and perhaps even people we prefer to avoid.
Every act of welcoming engagement with others is an act of hospitality. In marriage, hospitality becomes a vocation: a man and a woman commit themselves to a lifetime of welcoming each other. Parenthood is hospitality to our own children. The circles of hospitality are small at first but gradually widen. The front door of one’s home acquires a sacramental significance: the place we welcome others.
Christ calls us toward an extremely difficult level of hospitality: the love of enemies. To understand what that might means love we need to reconsider the word “love.” What does Christ mean by love? As used in the New Testament, it has nothing to do with romantic love. The love Christ speaks of is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust, love that does not depend of affinity or affection, love that struggles to protect the life of the other and even hopes to assist in saving the soul of the other. The “other” is the stranger, the outrider, the person who irritates us, the competitor, the adversary. “Love your enemies,” Christ commands, “and pray for them.”
What is meant by enemy? The English word has a Latin root: inamicus. Amicus means friend. Add the negative prefix in and you get inamicus — non-friend. We may be hesitant to label many people as enemies, but the world provides us with an enormous number of non-friends — people we cannot imagine ever placing within the category of friendship, people whose well-being or survival is of little if any consequence to us, people whose death we might even regard as good news, people with whom we have no longing to be in communion.
Our very salvation depends upon being in communion — communion with God and with each other. It’s a theme at the heart of the Gospel. In the the New Testament, Christ rarely speaks about the Last Judgement, but when he does, it is in terms of mercy, not only his to us but ours to others. He says that mercy will be given to those who were merciful. The hospitality of heaven will be given to those who offered hospitality. “I tell you solemnly,” he says, “that what you did to the least person you did to me.” He gives a series of specific examples, all of them acts of hospitality: food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, welcoming the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison. These are all very concrete actions that Christ speaks of — not very “theological,” if we think of theology as a realm of intellectual activity, of ideas, principles and insights. Many Christians would prefer a Last Judgment that was an examination of their professed beliefs rather than their actions. We would rather the doors of heaven open to us because we had recited the Creed correctly and had an excellent attendance record at church services.
Hospitality was at the heart of Louise and Nathan’s response to the arrival of Riley Arzeneaux at their door, a hospitality that would have been impossible had they not been so free from fear. No doubt they had heard via radio and TV that five armed men had escaped from prison and that a manhunt was underway. For days local people had been repeatedly warned about the convicts being at large and advised to “take precautions.” Many people understood that to mean that they ought to keep their weapons handy. America has a well developed gun culture. Many own guns precisely for such contingencies. But there was no trace of reliance on firepower in the Degrafinried household. As Louise says to both Riley and to the police, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t allow no violence here.”
Where does one obtain the kind of fearlessness that makes it possible to receive an escaped murderer as a guest sent by God? All I can guess from the articles and interviews I have read and my contact with family members is that Louise and Nathan had been freed from paralyzing fear by the depth of their conversion to Christ, the Christ who entered Jerusalem knowing that crucifixion awaited him, the Christ who prayed on the cross that those who were involved in his execution would be forgiven, the Christ who rose from the dead. The resurrection of the dead refers not only to our final rising, but how we live our lives before death. Louise and Nathan were people who had already risen from the dead when Riley Arzeneaux entered their lives. They were people who had risen from fear of death. I don’t mean to say there was no longer any trace of fear in their lives, only that fear was clearly not the driving force.
“The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God,” wrote the noted Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon. “Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam in his freedom chose to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with any ‘other’.”
Who is “the Other”? Zizioulas capitalizes the word “Other” to stress its importance. The “Other” is often someone outside my tribe, my ethnic, racial, religious or national group. We tend to take a fair amount of care about intentional killing within the tribe — due process of law, etcetera — but not very much when killing outside the tribe. Americans carefully count Americans killed in war while preferring not to count those whom they kill. As a Christian, I may in theory believe that each human being — each “Other” — is a bearer of the image of God, but in practice? The truth is it rarely crosses my mind that people outside my tribe are bearers of God’s image. In fact I often have a hard time discerning that image within the tribe, indeed even within my own family.
Metropolitan Zizioulas stresses that, in rejecting the “Other,” I am not just rejecting a particular person or group of people but simultaneously rejecting that person’s Divine Parent. This is the essence of sin, the dividing of the human race into the “us” and the “non-us.” Those who are “not-us” can be dehumanized and become targets of violence without our even regarding it as a sin. Reconciliation, Zizioulas says, begins with God, but there can be no reconciliation with God if we refuse to seek reconciliation with “the Other.”
Many who have written on the spiritual life have stressed the necessity of overcoming fear. The monk and author Thomas Merton wrote: “One of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance of our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves.” [Seasons of Celebration, p 116] One of his best known essays has as its title “The Root of War is Fear.”
Fear should have a positive function in life, providing a wake-up signal. An alarm clock is a helpful means of rising from sleep on time, but isn’t something you want ringing every hour of the day. Unfortunately for most of us the alarm clock of fear is ringing much too often. Many of us are still prisoners of fear. We make unfortunate choices, small and large, because of fear. Most of us take great care not to do things that involve risk, for example the risk of being in the company of people we think might be dangerous. Fear stands in our way — fear of death, fear of the other. When things we sought to avoid happen despite our best efforts to avoid them, we tend to be paralyzed. If a young Riley Arzeneaux armed with a shotgun were suddenly to appear at our door, not many of us would find space within ourselves to worry about his wet and freezing feet and empty stomach or see him as a potential partner in prayer. Probably we would feel like people on an airplane about to crash. To the extent we are blocked by fear, we are people who have not yet acquired the spirit of peace.
One of the most beloved saints of the Russian Orthodox Church is St. Seraphim of Sarov. “Acquire the Spirit of Peace,” he would sometimes say, “and thousands of people around you will be saved.” Seraphim lived much of his life as a hermit in the Russian forest but had countless visitors. Hospitality was a major aspect of his life. Most of his visitors were pious people seeking advice, but not all his visitors were safe. A bear would sometimes come to visit him. Seraphim explained to a terrified nun who once happened to witness Seraphim sharing his bread with the bear that he, after all, understood fasting but the bear did not. On another occasion Seraphim was visited by several thieves who heard a treasure was buried in his log cabin. Not finding it, they nearly beat Seraphim to death. In portraits of Seraphim in later life, you see him stooped over supported by a walking stick, his back permanently damaged. He did nothing to defend himself from the thieves nor did he seek their punishment. He saw the robbers as “unfortunate ones,” a term Russians in former times often used in referring to people we tend to refer to in less compassionate terms: criminals, convicts and psychopaths. Seraphim’s attitude was not unlike Louise Degrafinried’s, who assured Riley Arzeneaux that he wasn’t by nature an evil man, only had fallen into bad company.
Another saint of the Orthodox Church, St. John of Kronstadt, said: “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”
St. John of Kronstadt was not a person who had any illusions about human beings and our capacity to commit serious sins. The town of Kronstadt was a naval base not far from St. Petersburg, a place of much drunkenness, prostitution, and disorderly behavior. Many of the people St. John met in daily life, and whose confessions he often heard, were men who had committed acts of violence. He knew quite well the grave sins men commit, and also was familiar with the human talent for justifying our sins or blaming them on others.
In the same period when St. John was serving the sailors in Kronstadt, Dostoevsky was writing novels which explored what lies behind our sins. In the novel Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky provides his readers with a richly detailed account of how a bright young man in St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov, gradually becomes a murderer: how he uses his clever mind to turn the unthinkable into the doable, how he develops an ideology that not only permits but justifies murder, how what he would once have recognized as a great sin is made into an act of heroic necessity. He comes to sees himself as having become a superman, a Napoleon-like person freed from the prison of “bourgeois morality.”
Raskolinokov’s name was carefully chosen by Dostoevsky. Raskol means division or schism: a radical break in wholeness, the destruction of community. For Raskolnikov, the break occurs first invisibly, in his spiritual and intellectual life, only later through murderous deeds. Committing murder, Raskolnikov becomes a destroyer of society. He has altogether lost the awareness of the existence of God. Through an act of double homicide, he has severed his bonds with all the human beings around him. Having committed murder, first intellectually, then in action, Raskolnikov is no longer a person, only an individual. A person is the self in a state of communion with others, a communion made possible by being in a state of communion with God while an individual is the self experienced in a state of apartheid.
Fortunately, Dostoevsky’s novel is not only a study of how a man becomes a murderer but also how he repents. In the latter part of Crime and Punishment, the reader witnesses a process of change in Raskolnikov that results in conversion.
We catch a glimpse of the younger Raskolnikov in Riley Arzeneaux in his first encounter with Louise and Nathan Degrafinried. He is in such a fear-driven and disconnected state that he was able to aim a shotgun at two elderly strangers. At that point in his life, he saw the image of God in no one.
It’s quite different for Louise and Nathan. They are able to glimpse the image of God in Riley. They see in him an angry child who has lost his way, someone who urgently needs to be cared for. In their response to their unexpected guest, they provide us with a model of hospitality, the love of enemies, and of a life not ruled by fear.
If the essence of sin is fear of the other, the essence of our healing is love of the other. It’s what the Gospel is all about: God’s mysterious love of us despite all the efforts we make not to be lovable, and how transforming love can be when it passes through one life to another — as happened not many years ago in a small house in Mason, Tennessee.
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Note: This text is based on a lecture given at Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, England, in 2005. The most detailed account of the story I’ve come upon was “Bless You, Mrs. Degrafinried” by William Willimon, published in Christian Century, March 14, 1984. I have found additional details in Memphis newspaper accounts published in 1998 after the death of Louise Degrafinried as well as in a recording of a talk by Riley Arzeneaux given at the Northwest Elementary School in Mason, Tennessee, whose principal (now retired) was a daughter of Louise Degrafinried. The photo of the Dagrafinrieds was provided by their granddaughter, Faith Marshall.
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