Strong Children and Broken Adults
Inside the skywalk on 2nd and 2nd in Cedar Rapids, IA, a series of paintings winds its way along the walls around the Four Oaks offices. A ribbon of paint outlines people in simple human moments: a child studying a frog in his palm; an adult carrying a child watching a balloon float away; people talking over coffee. If you let your fingertips brush the wall as you walk, you’ll touch quotes like, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults,” an updated riff on Frederick Douglass’ “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”
The man who painted that mural knows strong children and he knows broken men.
Gary Connors-Boe has been a soldier, a pastor, a father, a husband, and a mentor. He’s done more than we can cover in this story: run thousands of miles, made hundreds of art pieces, and played countless games of Candy Land with kids who, more than anything, need a caring adult to make time for them.
Ready for War
Gary was raised in a conservative Christian family. When Gary was drafted into the Vietnam War he felt proud to serve his country: he had grown up watching Davy Crockett, his dad served in World War II. There was no conflict for him. He was fighting for God and country. Gary was ready to go to war.
He tested well and was trained to be a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. When he came home, he wanted to feel good about his service but struggled to reconcile the things he had seen and done. He couldn’t, so he pushed it down. He bought expensive cars, dated, reveled in things that distracted him from moment to moment.
Back in school at the University of Alabama, a colonel taught a class on the history of Vietnam that called into question everything he thought noble about his involvement in the war. He left his faith behind, unable to integrate his old beliefs.
“Ask Carl Sagan”
Years later, Gary and his then-wife, a “corn-fed Lutheran”, decided to go church one Sunday morning, just to take a trip down memory lane. The pastor took an interest in the young couple and made plans with Gary’s wife to stop by and visit. When she told Gary later that the pastor was coming over, Gary wasn’t ready to talk religion.
“I’m going to play golf,” he told his wife.
She said, “No you’re not, you’re staying, and if you don’t want to join the congregation just tell him.”
Because Gary was wise beyond his years, he listened to her and stuck around.
The pastor had a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M. He believed in evolution and the Big Bang. Gary was confused; this was not the anti-science kind of faith he grew up with. The pastor told Gary if he wanted to know how the universe was created, ask Carl Sagan. If he wanted to know who and why, there were answers in the Bible.
They talked until two in the morning.
For Gary, this marked a new way to think about what it meant to exist, that maybe he was here to find a better way to be in the world. Religion became a way to solve ethical problems rather than cause them. He decided to go to seminary.
While there, a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer delivered a lecture that Gary remembers vividly. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and anti-Nazi activist who was executed for his outspoken stance against Hitler. The speaker, Bonhoeffer’s friend and fellow pastor, shared Bonhoeffer’s convictions but lacked his courage and never spoke out. The speaker survived, but he had a message for the assembled students: God’s love covers all, but in one of the most critical moments in human history he was called to take a stand and did not. Many of his colleagues who didn’t take action committed suicide.
“You do not want to be in my place,” he told them. Gary didn’t forget his words.
When Gary became a pastor he resolved to preach what he had learned. Two key concepts he believed in were radical inclusion and distributive justice. Radical inclusion means that Jesus accepted, and therefore Christians should accept, all kinds of people, especially those who are often scorned in our culture and religious communities today. Distributive justice means to fairly distribute resources among all people. He knew he had to pass on knowledge even when it was unpopular, like decrying greed in a culture that celebrates personal accumulation of wealth. He called out government policies he disagreed with in the ’80s. He performed same-sex marriage ceremonies long before it was legal. He knew from his time in Vietnam how to do hard things despite fear.
He lost members who didn’t like his message, though, and hurt relationships, and became disappointed with what he saw as lack of courage in some colleagues who seemed more concerned with placating a conservative congregation than radical inclusion or distributive justice. Eventually, he walked away from being a pastor.
A Long-held Secret
Back in 1981 when his journey as a clergyman started, his first church assignment was St. Stephens Lutheran Church on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids. He would move around the country after that but loved Cedar Rapids. When he was asked to come back to do fundraising work for Four Oaks he was excited to return. Four Oaks was an organization he believed in. As a passionate, empathetic, and persuasive person, he was successful in his role.
Five years in, he realized something wasn’t clicking.
“I’d get called for a meeting later in the day and be almost in a panic,” he recalls. “I had trouble in situations where I wasn’t in control.”
Around the same time he switched healthcare plans from Four Oaks’ to the Veteran’s Administration at his brother-in-law’s urging. As a veteran, he could receive quality health care and save Four Oaks thousands every year. His experience with the VA was good, so when he was asked to try out a new evaluation for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he agreed. The results shocked him–he scored high on markers for PTSD. The VA recommended a new treatment program. He wasn’t interested, but his wife insisted.
Because Gary was wise beyond his 50+ years, he listened to her and tried the treatment.
“I went to a psychiatrist for two hours a week for six months,” he says. “After about three months, the psychiatrist said there was something I wasn’t telling him. He was right.”
Eventually Gary told him something he’d never told anyone.
In Vietnam, he piloted a state-of-the-art helicopter at a young age, promoted quickly for his aptitude. At one point he was communicating with a team of marine pilots returning from a mission; there were several reported kills, and the tradition on return of a successful mission was to “buzz” the air ops building. He asked the crew if they were going to buzz air ops and one declined; the other helicopter buzzed once. Gary asked if they were going to do it again (the custom for multiple kills) and they agreed.
Gary watched as the helicopter turned in the air. It was the wrong angle. It was too close to the ground. He saw it crash, killing everyone inside.
From that moment on, through his return to the States, school, seminary, and now his job, he carried the belief that he was responsible for the deaths of those men. He waited for the other shoe to drop, wondered why he wasn’t brought up on charges, wondered why the other pilots who must have thought he was fatally inexperienced didn’t openly accuse him. He had recurring dreams about crashes and that someone would uncover the bodies of the crew as if he had hidden them.
This story he told himself was holding him back. To lessen the grip, his psychiatrist told him to tell people. First, his wife. Although he thought he wouldn’t, he told her over the phone in the parking lot after that appointment.
She thought those deaths, though tragic, weren’t his fault. He expected her to despise him and her reaction was the opposite; the weight of that story suddenly lessened and he told a former marine pilot who also didn’t think he was to blame. Slowly, the tension he’d been carrying eased. The treatment program was immensely successful.
Back in the Trenches
He also knew he needed a new job, one that got him “back in the trenches” helping people directly.
He took a pay cut, switched positions from Four Oaks VP of Development to become Coordinator of Afterschool Programs for Cedar Valley Townhomes (affiliated with Four Oaks). He started the new job working out of a run-down two-bedroom apartment working with about 12 kids a day.
Today Cedar Valley Townhomes has a facility with enough space to serve over 100 kids. Gary’s been at this for nine years now.
The thing that keeps him coming back is the kids. While some people he worked with in the church had problems, the things these kids face are consistent, deeply systemic problems like racism and poverty. He has the chance to build relationships with kids and families, to connect them to resources, to be a support and reliable sounding board for people with heavy burdens to carry.
This chapter of life requires a new kind of brave for Gary, now in his 70s. He’s been responsible for life and death; he’s taken important stands on unpopular issues at great personal cost. He’s also become a father and a grandfather, and knows that care can change the direction of a life as much as violence. He shows up for the kids and families he works with day after day to listen, to play, to make whatever difference he can.
Even when it’s a little daunting.
“I guess, now, courage is playing that 4th round of Candy Land for the 248th consecutive day in a row.”
If you’ve ever played four rounds of Candy Land after the age of ten, you know it’s no small feat. But whatever it takes, Gary will be back because he knows what builds strong kids, and he knows he has what it takes.
Story by Leslie Caton. Photos by Courtney Ball and courtesy of Gary Connors-Boe