by Jim Forest
Above: Louise and Nathon Degrafinried
“The essence of sin is fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the ‘self’ is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the Other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any ‘Other’.” – Metropolitan John Zizioulas
Thinking about Metropolitan John’s words, a particular story came to mind. It involves the sort of fearful encounter that no one would wish for – the invasion of one’s home by a convicted murderer armed with a deadly weapon. This is a true account of what occurred in one American household in February 1984.
At the center of the story is Mrs. Louise Degrafinried, 73 years old at the time, and her husband, Nathon. They lived near Mason, Tennessee, a rural community northeast of Memphis. Both were members of the Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church.
The other key participant is Riley Arzeneaux, a former Marine sergeant who was serving a 25-year prison term for murder. He had escaped from Fort Pillow State Prison several days before along with four other inmates. Once on the run, Riley had gone his own way. Somehow he had obtained a gun. The police were in active pursuit both in cars and helicopters — a massive manhunt. Riley had been sleeping rough. It was winter. There was ice on his boots. He was freezing and hungry.
Having come upon the Degrafinried home, Riley threatened Louise and Nathon with his shotgun, shouted, “Don’t make me kill you!”
Louise responded to their dangerous guest as calmly as a grandmother might respond to a raucous grandchild. She started out by identifying herself as a disciple of Jesus Christ. “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 put the weapon on the couch. He said, “Lady, I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in three days.”
Louise calmly asked Nathon 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 Nathon 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.'”
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.”
The story crosses yet another border, a confession of love. After breakfast Louise held Riley’s hand a second time. She 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 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 where he was 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 woman, 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.”
There are people who have a voice-from-heaven authority. The police were as docile in their response to this determined grandmother as Riley had been. They put their guns back in their holsters. With their arms around Riley, Louise and Nathon 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 back yard. 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 of the Degrafinrieds does not end with Riley’s return to prison. Louise was asked to press charges against Riley for holding her and Nathon hostage but refused to do so. “That boy did us no harm,” she insisted. Both she and Nathon refused to testify.
Thanks to the Degrafinrieds, Riley’s life was not cut short, though twenty more years were added to his prison sentence. 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 — Louise kept in touch with Riley and he with her. Louise actively worked for Riley’s release.
“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.
Riley remembers 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.’ I realized 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 was often asked about the day she was held hostage. “Weren’t you terrified?” She responded, “I wasn’t alone. My Savior was with me and I was not afraid.”
It’s 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 where he works as foreman of a tent & awning company. He and his wife have a son.
The story is not over. The consequences of that extraordinary encounter in Mason back in 1984 continue to unfold.
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 main elements in the narrative is hospitality. One might even call it paschal hospitality – an act of fearless hospitality that reveals the resurrection. The Degrafinrieds received a desperate stranger into their home as a welcome guest. 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 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 a Gospel verse that connected Riley directly to Christ’s sorrow: “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 Riley was back in prison, the hospitality continued. Far from thanking God they had survived his 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 Nathon 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. In 2004, Riley was a guest speaker at the Mason elementary school whose principal is one of the Degrafinried children. The hospitality that Riley experienced 21 years ago continues to this day.
Hospitality is at the core of Christian life. The church is a community of eucharistic hospitality. In receiving communion, we experience nothing less than the hospitality of Christ.
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 – but for strangers and even people we prefer to avoid.
Every act of welcoming engagement with another person 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, a love that is like the sun shining on both the just and the unjust, love that does not depend on 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 outsider, the person who irritates us, the competitor, the enemy. “Love your enemies,” Christ commands, “and pray for them.”
Our salvation depends upon communion — with God and with each other. Christ doesn’t often speak about the Last Judgment, but when he does, it is in terms of mercy. 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: 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. Many Christians would prefer a Last Judgment that concentrated on 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 is at the heart of Louise and Nathon’s response to the arrival of Riley Arzeneaux at their door. Equally striking is their freedom 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 several days local people had been repeatedly warned about five convicts being at large and advised to take precautions. A good many people understood that to mean that they ought to keep their weapons handy. America has a well developed gun culture. Many own guns just for such contingencies. But there is no trace of reliance on guns in the Degrafinried household. As Louise said to both Riley and the police, “I am a Christian lady. I don’t allow no violence here.”
Fear locks doors. The Degrafinrieds had been freed from fear by the depth of their conversion to Christ. If the resurrection of the dead refers not only to our final rising but how we are living our lives here and now, the Degrafinrieds are people who had already risen from the dead when they met Riley Arzeneaux. I don’t mean to say they were strangers to fear, only that fear clearly was not the driving force.
Many who have written on the spiritual life have emphasized 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.”
Fear has its function in life. It’s something like an alarm clock. It’s a helpful means of rising from sleep on time, but not something that you want ringing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unfortunately for most of us the alarm clock of fear is ringing much too often, too long and too loud. Most of us are still prisoners of fear. We make many choices, small and large, because of fear. Most of us take great care not to do things that involve grave risks, especially the risk of being in the company of potentially dangerous people. They frighten us. 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 freezing feet or his empty stomach. Probably we would feel like people on an airplane about to crash.
“Acquire the Spirit of Peace,” St Seraphim of Sarov would sometimes say, “and thousands of people around you will be saved.” For many years Seraphim lived as a hermit in the Russian forest but had many 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 sometimes came 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 that was a treasure buried in his log cabin. Not finding it, they nearly beat him to death. In portraits of Seraphim in later life, you see him stooped over, supported by a walking stick, his back permanently damaged. 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 harsher, more condemnatory terms: criminals, convicts, pathological killers, etc. Seraphim’s attitude was not unlike that of Louise Degrafinried, who assured Riley Arzeneaux that he wasn’t by nature an evil man, only one who had fallen into bad company.
Shaped as we are by what I sometimes call The Gospel According to John Wayne, we tend to think of many people as being genetically evil. Either the evil is somewhere in their DNA or they were so damaged early in life that they have became unchangeably dangerous and need to be either permanently isolated or simply executed. But the Christian view is that each person, as a descendent of Adam and Eve, bears the divine image and that no one, even the most demon-possessed person, is incapable of repentance and conversion. “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God,” said St. John of Kronstadt, “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. Kronstadt was a naval base not far from St. Petersburg, a place of much drunkenness, prostitution, and disorderly behavior. The people St. John met in daily life, and whose confessions he often witnessed, were frequently men who had committed acts of deadly violence.
Like St. John of Kronstadt, Louise and Nathon were able to glimpse the image of God in Riley, seeing in him an angry, lonely child who had lost his way, someone who urgently needed to be cared for. In their response to Riley Arzeneaux, they provide us with a model of loving hospitality 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.
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Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship . Hismost recent book is “All is Grace: a biography of Dorothy Day” published by Orbis.
Note: 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 Degrafinried was provided by their granddaughter, Faith Marshall.
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❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60