John Kelly's Washington

New D.C. home sought for 'Guns Into Plowshares' sculpture

"Guns Into Plowshares" is encrusted with weapons from a D.C. gun buyback program. The sculpture has been stored near the Blue Plains sewage plant since a Judiciary Square renovation in 2008.
"Guns Into Plowshares" is encrusted with weapons from a D.C. gun buyback program. The sculpture has been stored near the Blue Plains sewage plant since a Judiciary Square renovation in 2008. (John Kelly/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The massive work of art that Esther Augsburger prayed might usher in an era of peace lies on its side in a fenced-in compound not far from the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant. "Guns Into Plowshares" it's called, though "Sculpture Into Scrap Metal" might be more appropriate these days.

"Esther asked me if she could come and take a look at it," Richard "Ric" Daniels told me Tuesday morning as we stood in the rain at Blue Plains. "I said, 'No. I don't want to see you cry.' "

Ric is Esther's attorney and for the past two years, he's been trying to find a home for her sculpture. For 11 years, it had a home: across from District police headquarters at Fourth and D streets NW. Then the court complex at Judiciary Square got renovated, and the sculpture got the boot in 2008.

Inspiration for the artwork came from a man who earned his living punching people in the face: former heavyweight boxing champ Riddick Bowe. In 1994, he funded a gun buyback program in the District: $100 per firearm, no questions asked. It was while watching a TV news report on Bowe's efforts that Esther's son Michael had an idea: Why not turn those guns into a modern, larger-than-life manifestation Isaiah 2:4: They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Esther contacted D.C. police and persuaded them to donate the weapons -- safely disabled -- to her. She and Michael spent months welding them to a massive metal assemblage shaped like the blade of a plow.

"We want this to be a positive symbol and a symbol of hope for the nation's capital, and of the positive good that it does when we lay down our arms," she told a Post reporter in 1994.

Esther and her husband, Myron, are prominent Mennonites. After retiring as president of Eastern Mennonite College, he became pastor of Washington Community Fellowship in Northeast Washington. About $100,000 was raised privately to create and place the sculpture. A donation agreement drawn up by the Augsburgers' attorney stipulated that the work -- dedicated in 2007 -- was expected to remain across from D.C. police headquarters and that Esther was to be notified it if was ever moved. Then-Mayor Marion Barry and then-Police Chief Larry Soulsby signed the agreement.

When Myron retired from his pastorship, he and Esther moved to Harrisonburg, Va. He's 80 now; she's 79. Two years ago, they were back in the District and went to look at "Guns Into Plowshares." It wasn't there. They called Ric, a former parishioner, to see if he could find it.

"It's not like a picnic table someone could throw in the back of a truck," Ric said. The work is 16 feet high and 19 feet long and weighs four tons.

Ric asked Vince Tolson, a friend who is a retired District police officer, if he could help locate it. Which is how we ended up Tuesday at Blue Plains, the resting place for unloved D.C. statuary. (The statue of D.C. governor Alexander "Boss" Shepherd that now stands on Pennsylvania Avenue was exiled to Blue Plains for decades.) Esther's statue is behind a fence down the hill from the police academy, near a hut that used to hold the department's SWAT vehicle -- until snow caved in its roof. The statue was not part of the Judiciary Square Master Plan.

I couldn't find anyone willing to admit to being the person who ordered "Guns Into Plowshares" moved. It's easy enough to guess why: Who would want to be seen criticizing a work of peace art created by a little old Mennonite lady?

There is no denying that the courthouse complex has emerged from its recent renovation in fine form. It's very handsome. There's a fountain where Esther's statue used to stand. "Guns Into Plowshares" would stick out in this classical setting. Encrusted as it is with guns, the sculpture isn't pretty. It isn't subtle.

But Esther says it's necessary. "You had drive-by shootings just recently," she told me on the phone last week before leaving for Europe. "That stuff's still going on. I think it's always relevant to lay down our weapons and have peace."

Discussions on finding a place for "Guns Into Plowshares" seem to be at a standstill. There was talk briefly of Eastern Market. Ric wondered whether it could be put on a flatbed and driven to crime hot spots. For now it sits at Blue Plains, where it illustrates a completely different Bible verse, Proverbs 25:15: Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.

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