By Tucker Brown

I was recently asked by Loyola’s Pastoral Counseling department to serve as a panel discussant following a talk given by Dr. Ken Pargament, one of the pioneers in the psychology of religion and spirituality. The faculty wanted me to share some reflections on the application of pastoral counseling principles in urban, underserved communities. As I sat with the topic I’d been given to consider, I thought about the way in which people sometimes talk about poverty as a “social problem” and the accompanying assumption that it’s remediable through hard work, education, and programming intended to advance disadvantaged communities. All of which presupposes, it seems to me, that poverty is either a personal failure or a breakdown in the system and that we only need to strengthen the person or tweak the system to overcome it. But what if the system is doing what it’s supposed to? Poverty, then, would really be a form of structural deprivation. A kind of forced starvation (i.e., material, emotional, intellectual, relational) in which so-called underserved communities suffer by necessity while others horde, inherit, and secure — even violently — the world’s resources. This was my line of thinking when I prepared and offered the following remarks:

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I live, work, and play at Jonah House: An intentional peacemaking community founded by Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister and a few others, who, motivated by faith, believed that it was their moral responsibility to resist every incarnation of violence and oppression. Their resistance often meant risking arrest, putting their lives and their bodies on the line for the sake of bearing witness to equality and justice, love and the way of nonviolence.

As I reflect on the question we’ve been asked to consider — particularly in terms of Dr. Pargament’s point about exploring new domains for therapeutic interventions outside traditional clinical contexts — I do so from this rather radical — and by radical I mean root, or original — tradition of peacemaking.

In discussing underserved communities, I think it’s important to begin by examining how we understand economic and social disparities. I would like to suggest that the pervasiveness of poverty, in all its forms, is not a failure of our systems, but a reflection of their proper functioning. In other words, underserved communities are a necessary consequence of social systems intended to advance, preserve and secure access to wealth and well-being based on certain identities like race, in particular whiteness, as well as educational background, social class and capital, profession, geography, gender, sexuality, and language. To name only a few.

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As spiritually-integrated helping professionals, I believe we uniquely experience a moral imperative to resist these and other injustices and to accept the risks of doing so. But what are we willing to risk to transform the systems and institutions that perpetuate and preserve structural disparities? And if we believe that, as a principle of pastoral counseling and as Dr. Pargament pointed out, the therapeutic relationship initiates a spiritual dimension, what would it mean for us to hold and participate in this sacred space, especially in our work with underserved communities and clients, outside the clinical context?

My decision to join Jonah House grew out of my personal and professional struggle to address these questions. As I worked with clients from underserved communities, first in Baltimore and then in New Mexico and Oregon, I was confronted with the matter of my moral responsibility to help change the injustices that necesitated their poverty, whether material, emotional, or educational. I came to the conclusion that an individual therapeutic relationship, for me, wasn’t sufficient. That I was called to another way.

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At Jonah House we care for a once-neglected 22 acre cemetery, 8 acres of which is a forest patch that offers beautiful greenspace in an otherwise treeless neighborhood withering from violence, addiction, and other symptoms of structural inequality. We run a food pantry, host student groups, and organize social justice actions in the city and elsewhere. In all that we do, though we fall short of the mark, we try to co-create a healing presence and kindle the spiritual dimension that’s the heart, body and wisdom of therapeutic encounter.

I’m not suggesting that the life I lead is an exemplar everyone should follow to realize transformative social change. And I will add that I’m still, and always will be, considerably more privileged than my neighbors in West Baltimore — in spite of my good intentions to live in solidarity with them. The risks I take are choices and theirs are not.

But I do believe, to paraphrase the Jesuit Dean Brackley, that by resisting a world obsessed with wealth, security, upward mobility and prestige, I’m able to see more clearly how that world — its values and the disparities these values necessitate — engenders and preserves underserved communities and the kinds of struggles they suffer with daily.

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This clarity invites me to live differently. And it’s a constant challenge, particularly to my privilege and the ways I benefit from systems intended to reinforce whiteness, maleness, and formal education. The challenge comes to me as a question, like a koan, whenever I interact with others in my community: What might I risk so that you don’t have to live at risk every moment of your life?

I leave you with that question to consider.

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I try to remember how I imagined Jonah House when Ben Warner first explained it to me one evening at Towson’s Urban Farm in the spring of 2015. I guess I saw images of my girlfriend’s catholic high school. I pictured a stone parish with a bell tower and overgrown headstones facing the street from behind wrought iron fencing. I wondered how large the garden was where sisters walked up and down rows of all manners of colorful produce that would go to the food pantry I had heard about. I originally imagined godliness and Christian purpose at the mantle of the work at Jonah House and I was dissuaded, feeling separated from the church. Ben explained, however, that these sisters are unlike any nuns he had ever met.

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After meeting the community members and visiting the grounds, I was inspired. I felt obscurely that this was what I’ve wanted to be a part of. I’ve grown up in an area where bigotry is common and often acceptable. I came to Towson University in an effort to escape that climate and experience some genuine sense of diversity of culture, race, and wealth. To be close to Baltimore. Towson was an improvement, but still the campus was separated from and in many ways blind to the suffering of the areas around it. When I would drive into downtown Baltimore to see a play or visit a museum, I would suffer a sense of uselessness when we drove by the people stuck on street corners. I was not and am not hardened against cardboard signs and tin cans, held out for pocket change. Poverty is something I have only ever spectated. But here in Jonah House were people concerned with acting on it and engaging with people who suffer.

My father asked if shaving my head was a requirement for staying at Jonah House. I wasn’t sure how to explain it. I didn’t want to be bothered with hair, clothing styles, how I looked while I was in this place. I wanted to separate myself from materials. Of course, when we arrived Tucker and Joe, the only other men living in the House, did have their heads shaved. I made a point to assure my dad that I was not joining a cult.

My first few nights were more difficult than I expected. Everyone was tremendously welcoming and loving and I hardly knew how to accept it. Augustus wished me good night. Then Emily gave me home-made ice cream with strawberries from the garden, and we watched a movie together, as if I had been a part of the family for weeks. When I went to my room in the basement that night, there were five beds and no table, so I put my alarm clock on the floor. For perhaps the first time in my life I felt very far from home.

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When we began the yard work, I expected to feel a greater sense of purpose. Tucker spoke to me about the value and process of work, and explained how important it was for Auggie and Evie to grow up watching their parents work so that they may live the way they do. There were times when weed-whacking seemed endless or picking rotten fruit felt pointless and I would start to believe I could never be strong or patient enough to live the way this community does. The purpose of my work came spinning back to me when Auggie and I ate strawberries that were still warm from the sun or when Ardeth listened to a funny story from one of the food pantry members as she got him greens from our garden. After sitting in the evenings, it became easier to look back and think of the successes and failures of the day. Lying in bed, I often thought about the presence of Ardeth, Carol, Liz, and the Jonah House community on Bentalou street as I listened to the distant pops of either fireworks or guns in the neighborhood.

I struggled most to prepare food for our community. I have very little experience and trying scared me. In my mind, food is so close to home, so basic and natural, that it is our connection to the community around us. We share food with the locals and we work on our small patch of Earth to provide for ourselves what we can. I once heard my uncle say, paraphrasing Alan Watts, “Godliness is not peeling potatoes and thinking about God. It’s just peeling potatoes.” Our work and our preparation of food are our communion with the earth. I didn’t want to burn our communion with the Earth. But Tucker, Joe, and especially Emily were extremely helpful and encouraging. They showed me efficient ways to harvest greens and simple tips to sautéing vegetables. They also all made a point to compliment my work.

In the second to last week of my time at Jonah House, it seemed the morning news had nothing to offer but violence. Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Dallas Police Officers. It was weighing heavily upon me, and Tucker made the suggestion we do something. To be closer to Baltimore, I thought. We made six signs, wishing for peace, the most powerful of which read:

Awaken from the Illusion of Separation

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There in the grass, with the wind blowing our signs over and the sounds of the inner harbor’s bustle all around us, we sat. With the intention of peace makers and allies we sat. I felt strongest on that day. I felt I truly was a member of this place of peace. Before long, our sit was interrupted by marchers who surveyed our signs. They were wary at first, but then approached and hugged us. They asked us to join them, so Tucker, Auggie, and I walked down the street, joining the movement. Auggie was perplexed. He watched faces and clapped when the march ended.

As my stay was coming to a close, I was sad to leave this family, and especially Auggie. The sisters hugged me and reminded me that I am always welcome. Emily taught me to make pickles and one of the few things I took from the house were three jars of pickles and two of relish in the satchel Joe gave me. I did not know how to thank these people for making me a member of their community. How do I thank someone for love? I admit, however shamefully, that I was also eager to return to some of the comforts of my home. It is no small calling to choose a life of so little material value and there were times when I was frustrated and wearied. Jonah House gave me a taste of a life I will one day return to, whether it is on Bentalou street, in Garrett County, or off somewhere else in the world. A life where items have no possession, but are merely visiting me while they bring me joy. Where food is something I can raise from the Earth, not just something that comes in boxes with expiration dates. Where I value the work that I am doing outside of the transferrable wealth it may bring me. And a life where I live by and for a community that loves unconditionally.

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It is difficult to be thrust back into the role of college student. I am busy from the moment I wake up, when I click off the same alarm clock with glowing green numbers, and yet the sense of purpose I felt at Jonah House is much harder to find here. So many people wedge past each other as we walk to classes, headphones in our ears. So many people are trying to be alone. Each day I am trying to be patient and practice loving strangers. It is often that at the end of the day I must step back, breathe, and respectfully remind myself to awaken; awaken.

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“Justice is what love looks like in public.” – Cornel West

This summer, I was blessed to have the opportunity to serve the community of West Baltimore through Jonah House. I spent two days a week there: on Tuesdays, I served neighbors through the food pantry; on Thursdays, I served by assisting with outside work, cleaning the house, or sometimes just spending time with the men, women, and children who live at Jonah House. In addition to the physical help that I was able to provide to the community was the spiritual healing that I underwent during my short time with the community.

14102905_10153732165226994_5201650896750469468_oI first became aware of the Jonah House community a little over two years ago. I had moved to Baltimore in September 2013 to begin a year of service with Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry (BSVM), a small service organization that is part of AmeriCorps. I and four other men and women moved into an intentional community in the Union Square neighborhood of West Baltimore – living just two doors down from Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham at Viva House – and served at Bon Secours Hospital. One aspect of the BSVM program was weekly reflections on Thursday mornings, and on one morning in the spring of 2014 Shannon, the director of BSVM, took us to Jonah House to meet the community. I remember being struck by the peace and serenity of the grounds, and how quickly I felt as if I had been transported out of West Baltimore. I couldn’t fathom how such a beautiful place was located in the heart of West Baltimore! We spoke with the couple who had been living there at the time, Ted and Amy, about the central tenets of the Jonah House community and their approach to radical love and living out the teachings of the Gospel. I was intrigued and inspired by this community and wanted to get more involved; however, I was soon swept up by the end of my year of service, finding a new job and place to live in Baltimore, and applying to medical schools.

Jonah House found its way back into my life in early May 2016, shortly after the death of Daniel Berrigan. I was amazed by the outpouring of love and support from people of all walks of life after his death, and the more I read about him the more inspired I became by his teachings and his actions. I finished my first year of medical school at the University of Maryland in mid-May, and since I didn’t have any classes this summer I saw it as an opportunity to spend time at Jonah House, which was founded by Dan Berrigan’s brother and frequent co-defendant Philip, and his sister-in-law Liz McAlister, in 1973. I was welcomed into the community immediately, and saw the gifts that each member of the community – Liz, Ardeth, Carol, Joe, Emily, Tucker, Auggie, and Evie – contributed to the house.

I’m going to be honest and vulnerable here. As much as I want to live my life in radical solidarity with the poor and truly live out the teachings of Jesus, a) I’m scared and b) I’m not good at it. Take the Jonah House food pantry, for example. Every part of me wants to love unconditionally the neighbors of Jonah House who come each week to receive a box, knowing that these men and women are my brothers and sisters and that their suffering is also my suffering. And yet, every time someone asks for a second item or for an item that isn’t in that week’s box, there is a deep, nagging voice in my head that says, “Really? Can’t you just be grateful for what you’ve been given?” It’s awful, I know! And it’s hard for me to admit this.

But this is why I think that my time at Jonah House was so valuable this summer. When I witness Ardeth’s look of joy when a person who hasn’t been by in a while comes to get a box, I witness the joy of Jesus. Or when I see her feel empathy for someone who is going through a tough time in his or her life, I see the empathy that Jesus had for the poor he encountered. This unconditional love that the members of the Jonah House community exhibit each and every day has softened my heart, which is hardened by society on a daily basis.

I also have to admit that I was pretty anxious about my abundance of “free time” this summer that provided me with the opportunity to spend time at Jonah House. You see, most of my classmates at the University of Maryland spent their summers in the hospital, conducting research with physicians in hopes of getting published to further help their careers. In fact, the medical school requires all of its students to conduct a research project before graduating, telling its students that they make it mandatory because it will help all of us be more competitive when we apply to residency programs. I, too, was lined up to do a research project this summer in the Emergency Department at Bon Secours Hospital. Things never really came together, however, and in some ways I’m glad that they didn’t.

You see, the culture of medicine can be quite toxic. Here you are, surrounded by people who have succeeded in just about everything they have ever done their whole lives; their hard work and privilege has served them well. And then you inject paranoia into their lives by telling them that they won’t be successful in their careers unless they publish papers and get recognized for research (by the way, I’m not bashing research. It’s incredibly important to the furthering of our medical knowledge. It’s just not my thing!). So these students place themselves in the rat race, without even considering if it’s a race they really want to run.

In many ways, I think this culture is a microcosm of Western society at large. We’re told from an early age that there’s really only one legitimate path to success: go to college, then obtain a graduate degree, build a successful career, etc. Only YOU can create your own success, even if it’s at the expense of others. And my experience this summer at Jonah House just reminded me how false and harmful this narrative is. I witnessed the lives of men, women, and children who have found Christ’s love in the heart of West Baltimore and who work every day to spread that love to all who need it.

I vividly remember one conversation I had with Tucker this summer. We were talking about his work boots and how durable they were and how much he loved them. I said something along the lines of “Yeah, I bet you that they let you go out there and just conquer the world!” He paused for a few moments and replied, “No, not conquer. I don’t think that’s the right word. They allow me to experience the beauty of this world.” It was a beautiful example of how our interactions with this world and the environment are an integral aspect of our spirituality and faith.

Jonah House has reminded me that my definition of success doesn’t have to be defined or controlled by others. I don’t have to enter the rat race if I don’t want to; and believe me, I don’t! I simply strive to be an extension of Christ’s love to us. I am grateful to the Jonah House community for welcoming me this summer!

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Prodigals

By Joe Byrne

The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps Jesus’s most popular short story. It is used as shorthand for what is best in the Christian religion: generosity, forgiveness, redemption, unconditional love.

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I’m not the first person to suggest that in this parable there is more than one prodigal son. Arguably there are two prodigal sons in the parable—and they are prodigal in different ways. I would also suggest there is a prodigal father. And before I’m through I’ll talk about prodigal apostles, churches, nations and gods. Prodigality is my theme. It certainly seems to be the theme that those who chose the lectionary readings want us to consider.

Prodigality is one of the central narratives of Christianity. The Christian path is a wayward path. It is the story of going astray, of taking the wrong path and finding our way back to the right path. In some ways that is the path, and we never find our way to the right path except by wandering off the path first. We find our way in the wilderness, and paradoxically never find the way by hewing to the straight and narrow.

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Definitions of Prodigal
  1. Being wasteful of resources; or extravagant generosity.
  2. Engaging in, and then repenting, acts of moral depravity.

In Jesus’s story, the prodigal son is thought to be prodigal according to both these definitions. The father—and by extension, God—is prodigal according to the first definition. And on this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11/2001, I would say that the United States has been prodigal according to both definitions. Just as the prodigal son had his metanoia, his repentance, we must hope that the United States might also change its ways and find its way back to the right path. More on that later.

Confessions of a Prodigal Son

Before that, let me say something about my own prodigality. I consider myself a prodigal son. I certainly felt that way when I returned to the Christian path, and particularly to the faith-based peace movement, after eighteen years in the wilderness. In 1996, I left the Catholic Church. I told people that I was leaving the Church to become a Buddhist, but I wasn’t much of a Buddhist during those eighteen years, though I periodically practiced. I didn’t really leave one church to join another; what I was really doing was trying to live a life unencumbered by dogmas and moral rules. While I didn’t live a life of dissolution, like the prodigal son—I didn’t have half an estate to blow!—I did do drugs and engaged in sexual promiscuity. Some might call this moral depravity; I was certainly wasteful of the gifts God had given me. Eventually, I realized that a life dedicated to hedonism, and a life lived in bitter reaction to the more repressive aspects of religion, was not a very satisfying one. So I came back to the Church, to the faith in which I was raised, the faith that had formed my heart and mind and soul, and my sense of mission in the world. I wouldn’t characterize this return as repentance as such, or as a deep conviction of my sinfulness; I was driven, instead, by a desire to be reconciled to my better nature, and to God.

The same is true of my return to the faith-based peace movement, to the Atlantic Life Community (ALC). After eighteen years away, I naturally assumed that everyone assumed I was a government agent, a spy. Who knows, some in the ALC might still think this. If so, at least I’m a spy with a good singing voice. And I haven’t gotten anyone busted yet.

Let’s turn to the readings. I admit on the outset that this time I’ll be light on the exegesis, and hew instead more closely to my theme.

Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14

In this reading, God complains to Moses about his people. God wonders if they are still His people. They have set up a golden calf and called it God. God calls this “depravity,” when in fact it seems they just wanted a visual representation of God. God says: “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them. Then I will make of you a great nation.” When God says “let me alone,” he is assuming that Moses would challenge God on this. Moses’s role is to speak truth to power, whether he is speaking to his people or to God. After all, God is threatening genocide. But that’s all right, God says; I will wipe out all these people, but I will make of you a great nation. Moses might have thought: where have I heard this before? Didn’t God say the same thing to Adam and Eve, right before he banished them from the garden? Didn’t God say the same thing to Noah after he wiped out all the people in the world, except for Noah and his family? Didn’t God say the same thing to Abraham, right before he ordered Abraham to sacrifice is only son? And now he was saying it to Moses, after threatening to kill the people he had taken so much trouble to liberate from the Egyptians.

Moses dares to point all this out to God, and reminds God that God promised to make the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel “as numerous as the stars in the sky.” God is convinced by Moses. God “relented in the punishment he had threated to inflict on his people.” Older translations say that God “repented” from what he had planned. But it is borderline blasphemous and heretical to say that our perfect, omniscient and all-powerful God “repented,” that he turned away from doing evil (which some older translations also say: that God repented of doing evil). That is what seems to be suggested by those who chose the lectionary readings. All the other readings are about repentance. In this reading, God repents. But is it really heretical to suggest that God learns from his mistakes, that God grows, comes to self-knowledge and consciousness, in the ways that people do? If not, we are faced with the specter of another heresy, that of Marcionism.

According to the ancient Christian writer Marcion, Christianity reveals the true God, the God of love, forgiveness, and compassion; whereas, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a false god, a god of vengeance and hatred. This position has been declared heretical by the Church, and rightly so, because it denigrates Judaism and justifies anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish pogroms, and the Holocaust. But how then do we explain the God of much of the Hebrew Scriptures—who is a jealous god, who is sometimes seemingly genocidal and urges a genocidal mentality, ironically enough, upon the Jewish people—compared to the God that Jesus describes, who is a God of infinite love and compassion? And how do we explain a God who is, in the Hebrew Scriptures, a practitioner of conditional love, with the God of Jesus, who practices unconditional love?

One explanation is that God changes, that God experiences metanoia. Another explanation is that it is in fact the human understanding of God that changes, rather than God him/herself. The savage God who sometimes appears in the Hebrew scriptures is really the way God was perceived by a savage, or at least a primitive, people. By the time Jesus came along, these people were no longer savage or primitive; they had come to know God, through the experience of centuries, to be an infinitely compassionate being.

This suggests that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are fictional in the sense that fiction is an art form by which we come to the truth by means of creative falsity. It is also an art form by which characters come to the truth by way of action in the world, by waywardness, followed by reflection upon action and waywardness. Thus individuals, peoples, and even gods change and become more highly evolved. This takes us a little bit off course, so I’ll leave it there.

Paul’s Letter to Timothy 1:12-17

According to Paul, Jesus came into the world to save sinners. “Of these I am the foremost,” Paul says.

Paul is proclaiming himself a prodigal son: once a just man, a progressive Pharisee, he has become a fanatical persecutor, a murderer, a mass murderer, a serial killer. In doing so, he “acted out of ignorance” in his “unbelief.” But his letter to Timothy suggests that Paul would not be who he was if he had not gone astray. “For that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who come to believe in him.”

Paul does not dwell on his sinfulness but instead on how he has become reconciled. He admits to being an imperfect apostle, and that by way of his imperfection he has come to a more perfect understanding of a compassionate, loving God.

We might say the same thing about the Church. If one of the two inventors of the Church (with Peter) can be imperfect, so too can the Church. And just as Paul—and as God, in Exodus—can gain by going astray, off-path, so too can the Church learn from its mistakes. The current pope has a good grasp of this. He freely admits, and regularly apologizes for the transgressions of the Church. He has done much to heal the damage wrought by the priest sex abuse scandal. Lately, as another example, he has apologized for the persecution of gays and lesbians in the Church. The Church of Pope Francis is a prodigal church, returning to the values promulgated by its founder, such as mercy, compassion, and unconditional love.

Luke 15:1-32 (The Lost Sheep, Coin, Son)

In my discussion of the gospel reading today—which, along with the parable of the prodigal son, also includes the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin—I’ll be drawing upon the work of Amy-Jill Levine. In her book The Short Stories of Jesus, she includes a whole chapter on the cluster of these three parables.

Levine, a Jewish scholar and professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, devotes most of her chapter to answering and arguing against anti-Semitic interpretations of these parables. For instance, some interpreters see the father in the parable of the prodigal son as a representation of God, a God who is loving, and compassionate, and thus radically different from the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, they suggest an interpretation that is Marcionistic. In fact, Levine points out, this compassionate father is not that different from Jewish fathers of Jesus’s day, and not that different from the loving God who appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the prophets.

Levine also argues against the interpretation that sees the parables in today’s gospel reading as being about repentance. Regarding the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, she simply points out that sheep and coins can’t repent. Levine argues that these stories are more about reconciliation than repentance.

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Before moving on to the parable of the Prodigal Son, let’s consider the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Are there elements of prodigality in these two stories? I would say, with some back up from Levine, yes. The shepherd is prodigal—that is, he’s reckless and wasteful, in abandoning his ninety-nine sheep to find the one who was lost, and then throwing a party to celebrate finding the one sheep (Levine facetiously comments that she wouldn’t have been surprised if the shepherd had served mutton at the party!). The woman who loses the coin is reckless and wasteful in throwing a party to celebrate finding one coin. The suggestion here is that the party cost her much more than that one coin.

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What this illustrates is what the father in the parable of the prodigal son represents—God’s reckless and wasteful dispensation of his/her resources. This is a wonderful definition of God’s grace! The point here is that what causes the celebration is not so much repentance (again, sheep and coins can’t repent) but the joy that results from reconciliation—from finding what was lost, as opposed to the conviction of sin, of guilt.

This is my reading, anyway, of the parable of the prodigal son. The first prodigal son is prodigal in both definitions I set out at the beginning. He is wasteful, and engages in acts of moral depravity. But he returns and experiences his father’s prodigality: the father gives his wayward son the best robe and kills for him the fatted calf. This prodigal son did not deserve it, but such was the unconditional love of his father. In the same way, humans don’t deserve God’s riches, God’s grace, but God recklessly disposes them upon us anyway.

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So the father is prodigal in his reckless generosity. Which made me wonder: how did he come about this belief in unconditional love? How do any of us come to such a belief? Often it’s an experience of conditional love that goes badly. Perhaps there was a third son that we don’t hear about in the parable. Perhaps once upon a time this third son performed an act of generosity with his father’s property which angered the father (like what happened to St. Francis of Assisi and his father). This third son might then have gone off and not returned—perhaps he died in a faraway land, unreconciled with his father, leaving the father to lament his lack of generosity and understanding. Such an experience would explain the radical generosity, the unconditional love, of the father in the parable of the prodigal son.

And if we see the father in the parable as a stand-in for God, we might understand Jesus to be representing a God who has learned from his mistakes with the people of Israel, when they were in the desert and more particularly when they were a nation mimicking the empires that surrounded them, worshiping the idols of wealth and power.

What then of the second son? I mentioned that he is prodigal too. He is prodigal in the sense that he has gone astray upon the straight and narrow. He has fulfilled all the commandments, all the law, but lacks the insight and compassion that comes from going off the path, from wandering in the desert.

Our prodigal nation

I end with a reflection upon the terror attacks of 9/11/2001.

I will begin by saying that I’m becoming more and more convinced that those who claim 9/11 was an inside job are right. The arguments of people like David Ray Griffin and Jim Douglass (and our dear friends Kathy Boylan and John Schuchardt) are suggestive and persuasive. It seems impossible to believe that the clinical demolition of the World Trade buildings was done by way of flying planes into them and dousing them with airplane fuel (particularly when one of the fallen buildings was not hit by an airplane). The lack of photographic evidence of a plane crash at the Pentagon is also suspicious. Whether it was the Bush administration that dynamited those buildings, or knew about it and let it happen, the hawkish members of the Bush II cabal certainly used the destruction of the World Trade Center to further their nefarious ends.

But for me the greater crime was to take the country-wide commiseration and camaraderie that followed the killing of three thousand innocent people, and twist it into blood-thirsty revenge, leading the United States into two (at least) wars, and the murder of a hundred times as many innocent noncombatants in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In the wake of 9/11, the United States has been prodigal in both senses of the definition I used at the outset. Many billions of dollars have been wasted on the destruction of two countries and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Wasteful and wanton, to say the least. Profligate and morally depraved, for sure.

All that said, I find the “9/11 was an inside job” narrative to be extremely alienating and disempowering. It’s the depiction of a nation that is irredeemable; that is, in fact demonic. I prefer to see our nation as prodigal, rather than demonic. I hold out hope that we as a nation might find ways to use our wealth to aid the poorer nations of the world, rather than destroy them. That we might be recklessly generous with methods of education and enlightenment, modeling the values of nonviolence, of peace with justice, and true democracy.

If metanoia is possible for people, it must be possible for nations as well; it must be possible for worlds such as ours. America the prodigal must be able to step away from the brink, to return from the wilderness, having learned from our grievous mistakes. If not, we are all lost, trapped in a world that is one big prison, in a permanent desert of our own making.

I end this reflection with questions for our discussion. How might our prodigal nation return to the community of nations (rejecting the superpower label, or any notion of empire) and to the values that inspired the American revolution, and inspire the world still. How might we learn from our mistakes since 9/11 and be better for it?

How might our prodigal Church return to the values preached and embodied by Jesus?

How have we experienced our own prodigality? According to which definition (positive and negative sense of prodigality)?

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Saturday, September 10, was a big day for tree people at Jonah House. We had two groups visiting simultaneously.

The Baltimore Orchard Project (BOP) had a canning workshop in the cemetery.

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This was part of a year-long orchard stewardship program that Jonah House is participating in. The canning workshop was entitled “Sharing the Harvest Among Neighbors.” The participants discussed harvesting basics and learned about canning from the Caiti Sullivan. Caiti works at Hex Ferments and now works at Millstone Cellars. She is a canning expert as well as an artist.

Caiti was great but our own Emily would have done equally well in teaching a canning workshop. Emily gave me some excellent pointers when I wanted to can (jar, really) some apple juice I had made with my juicer. Now with Caiti’s AND Emily’s help, I’ll be able to take on other canning projects.

After the canning workshop, Dean Freeman, outgoing harvest coordinator from the Baltimore Orchard Project, talked a little bit about harvesting. He mentioned that the BOP had already hosted a couple of fruit picks at Jonah House (pears and apples). He also said that the Jonah House orchard is a model for what they’re trying to accomplish in Baltimore!

Meanwhile, on the other side of the cemetery, the Baltimore Naturalist Network was wandering around our 8-acre forest patch. The host was Charles Davis, from the the Natural History Society of Maryland, and about fifteen folks came out for the forest walk.

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The Baltimore Naturalist Network is part of the Maryland Community Naturalist Network, which is a project of The Natural History Society of Maryland. The Network is attempting to provide nature mentors within walking distance of every neighborhood in Baltimore. The Network connects participants to a larger community of knowledgeable experts to promote skills of awareness, place-knowledge, and nature connection. Together they explore the nature of our neighborhoods and parks, and share what we discover with those in the neighborhood.

We look forward to future visits from the Network.

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by Joe Byrne

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By Joe Byrne

Members of Jonah House were honored to participate in a couple of different commemorations of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima by the United States in 1945. On Saturday, August 6, 2016, which was the 71st anniversary of the bombing and the feast of the Transfiguration, Joe Byrne and Liz McAlister of Jonah House joined 30 peacemakers in a prayer service outside the White House to repent for the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The peace witness was organized by the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, Pax Christi Metro-DC, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Isaiah Project and the Sisters of Mercy – Institute Justice Team.

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The prayer witness, which was held from 8-9am, began with an opening reflection, offered by Art Laffin. This was followed by a period of silence to remember the nuclear victims at 8:15am, the exact time in Japan that the bomb was dropped. Then Mr. Toshiyuki Mimaki, (pictured above speaking in front of the White house) Vice President of Hiroshima Prefectural Hibakusha Organization and a former Executive Board member of Nihon Hidankyo (The Japan Confederation of A & H Bomb Sufferers Organizations) was introduced by Kio Kanda, from the Hiroshima/Nagasaki Peace Committee of the National Capital Area, the group responsible for bringing Mr. Mimaki to the D.C. area.

Speaking through a translator, Mr. Mimaki shared that he was born in Tokyo, experienced the Great Tokyo Air Raid in 1945, and then, at the age of three, was a victim of the first atomic bombing in his father’s hometown of Hiroshima, where he and his family had moved. On August 8, 1945, he walked around the whole neighborhood of Hiroshima Station with his mother and younger brother in search of his father, who worked for the Japan National Railway. He also conveyed the horrific experience his family endured as a result of the bombing. In his concluding remarks, Mr. Mimaki stated that he appreciated President Obama’s recent historic visit to Hiroshima. But he also made a plea to Mr. Obama to visit the Peace Museum in Hiroshima and do the right thing, together with other nuclear powers, and abolish all nuclear weapons.

Following Mr. Mimaki’s powerful remarks, Bob Cooke shared about the groups who were involved in sponsoring the “Apology Petition,” which offers to the people of Hiroshima the apology that President Obama refused to offer when he visited Hiroshima. To date 555 people have signed the petition.

Scott Wright and Jean Stokan then led a moving ritual of repentance atoning for the sin of using nuclear weapons, and distributed red and white roses to all gathered. The red roses symbolized the sacredness of all life as well as the grief and suffering caused by war and the the atomic bomb. The white roses symbolized hope and our commitment to work for a nonviolent world, free of weapons, war and violence. Following a community reading of the Apology Petition, each person presented their rose to Mr. Mimaki, who graciously received them. The Apology Petition was then personally presented to Mr. Mimaki, who expressed his profound appreciation.

After the presentation of the Apology Petition, Paul Magno and Sr. Megan Rice led a Litany of Repentance. Following the Litany, Marie Dennis read a passage for the Gospel of Luke, marking the feast of the Transfiguration, as well as a short prayer. Liz McAlister then read a poem titled “Shadow on the Rock,” that was written by her brother-in-law, Daniel Berrigan, S.J. who died on April 30th. (Daniel Berrigan – Presente!) The witness concluded with everyone singing “I Come and Stand” and “Vine and Fig Tree.”

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Then, on Sunday August 7, Joe Byrne, Tucker Brown, Emily Parr, along with little Auggie and Evie (their first peace vigil!) were able to participate in the 32nd annual Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration in Baltimore. This event, organized by the Baltimore Hiroshima-Nagasaki Commemoration Committee, remembers the atomic bombings of Japan on August 6 & 9, 1945, which killed more than 200,000 people. Other organizations involved in the commemoration were the Baltimore Quaker Peace and Justice Committee of Homewood and Stony Run Meetings, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, Crabshell Alliance, and Pledge of Resistance-Baltimore.

This event began at 5:30pm, at 33rd and Charles Streets, in front of the main entrance to Johns Hopkins University, with a demonstration against Hopkins’s weapons contracts, including research on killer drones, as well as a vigil to commemorate the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan.

At 6:30pm, the vigilers marched to the Homewood Friends Meetinghouse, at 3107 N. Charles Street. Joe Byrne performed some dulcimer music and accompanied himself singing a few songs, then David Eberhardt, a member of the Baltimore Four protest in 1967, recited some poetry. After that, Mr. Toshiyuki Mimaki, the Hiroshima Hibakusha (Atomic Bomb Survivor) who spoke at the White House on August 6, once again gave testimony of his experience of the bombing of Hiroshima, showing slides to illustrate his experience, and called upon the nations of the world to abolish nuclear weapons so that the crime of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is never repeated. The Hibakusha’s greatest fear is that when they are gone, the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will disappear and nuclear weapons will be used again, this time threatening life itself.

The event concluded with dinner at Niwana Restaurant, 3 E. 33rd Street, with Mr. Mimaki.

See also an article on the August 6 vigil at the White House, written by James Martone for the Catholic News Service:

https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/hiroshima-survivor-shares-memories-atomic-blast-peace-activists

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By Megan Mundi

The following is a reflection offered by Megan Mundi, a regular participant in the Jonah House Sunday prayer service, on August 7, 2016.

The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Book of Wisdom 18:6-9
Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19
Luke 12:32-48

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Today’s readings lead us into a discussion about faith; the merits of faith, the actions of the faithful, the consequences of faithlessness and most importantly the essence of faith. The measure of a person’s faith, how sincerely one chooses to believe and how often/extremely they act or react from a place of faith are often subject to judgment from others, allowing the believers to be viewed as “good” Christians, or otherwise. This quickly becomes problematic. For instance, politicians stand in front of large crowds and claim their “belief in the Lord Jesus Christ” as their motivating factor for any wide range of things they say. Or on the other hand, many “people of faith” allow unjust systems to remain unquestioned because “God always has a plan”.

This view of suggested that faith is a thing to be measured, gained, or believed in – this is not true faith. It allows action to be inserted or left out with almost equal disregard. Understanding faith as something that is optional overlooks it’s fundamental essence. Rather than something we choose to believe, faith is an intrinsic part of our human experience. In his book Dynamics of Faith Paul Tillich suggests “Man is driven toward faith by his awareness of the infinite to which he belongs, but which he does not own like a possession.” Faith should not be understood as belief in our connection to something greater than ourselves, but rather the recognition of that already present connection, and the drive to strengthen it. Having faith is having the willingness to learn and practice the things that deepen our connection with the Divine.

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Paul Tillich

Because of its truthfulness, faith has always been an essential part of the human experience. Karen Armstrong talks about this as “our search for meaning” and documents the acts throughout history that intended to honor that search. In the earliest human societies, toward the end of the Paleolithic age, cave drawings were found and determined to denote places of ritual and honor. These drawings were not connected to any specific “God” that we would understand today, but were signs of faith. They were expressions of awe in the grander order of the world that people were experiencing. These might be the earliest documented expressions of faith, but countless other examples throughout the development of societies make it clear that faith has always shaped how we interact with our world. Armstrong claims that there has always been an awareness of the “the fundamental reality” which eventually came to be called God. She goes onto say that this fundamental reality transcends human concepts and thoughts, and can only be known through devoted religious practice.

The problem is: faith by this definition is exhibited solely through human action and human action is often misguided by ego – even when our intentions are otherwise. Tillich explains faith as an act of the personality as a whole. (Or imagine personality when it’s whole.) He proposes that “we must deny that man’s essential nature is identical with the rational character of his mind”. Therefore we must conclude that faith emerges from the struggle between the true nature of one’s whole self and the rational acts of the mind. True faith based actions are those that bridge our human experience with our divine nature.

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But, how can we know what are truly acts of faith? We must start with listening. Listening not with our ears, but with our inner most selves, listening again for that “fundamental reality” from which we have become disconnected. This listening must come from a place of humility and openness. We must sharpen the skill of distinction between acts of faith and acts of ego. This proves time and time again to be extremely difficult for humans. We live a time where countless systems have been developed to distort that skill (possibly it has always been a time when systems were in place to distort that skill). Tillich reminds us that “Many distortions of the meaning of faith are rooted in the attempt to subsume faith to the cognitive function of personal life and emotion and will.” These are distortions that could be avoided through a well developed practice of humbled listening.

The idea that those with the deepest faith are those who have made the choice to believe denotes a deterioration. This idea presumes that we can no longer simply recognize our connection to something greater and search for and practice ways to honor that connection. It implies that we have been conditioned so thoroughly in the rational and ego that we have to take a “leap of faith”, we have chosen to believe in something we cannot see, something we once knew, and felt. A truth we have been conditioned to overlook and suppress in favor of appeasing our ego.

Tillich makes the argument that “Faith is freedom.” The consequences of ill practiced faith are ones we are all familiar with. We have experienced them. They are as often internal consequences and external ones. Tillich explains his sentiment, “In the ecstasy of faith there is an awareness of truth and of ethical value there are also past loves and hates, conflicts and reunions, individual and collective influences. Ecstasy means standing outside of oneself – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center. Ecstasy means standing outside of oneself – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.
Matters of faith are not a choice, rather our natural state. How do we ensure that we are not engaging in things that distract ourselves from this natural state? How do we strengthen our connection to the Divine and come fully back into our whole selves?

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By Liz McAlister

Dissatisfaction. A vague hunger. Subtle, nagging, demanding to be filled – seldom strong enough to be the central focus of attention. A vague hunger both blind and lost, that is seduced, distorted, manipulated to define itself in terms of greed, consumption, and wealth addiction. So we seek to fill it – with an excess of food, activity, information, possessions. We want more because what we are getting is not what we need. Now is never enough. Too much is never enough.

The great seducer is the culture. The average North American is bombarded 10,000 times a day with sensory bites. Their thrust:

– to breed dissatisfaction – we aren’t beautiful enough, clean enough, cool enough, smart enough, young enough

– to sell products that will make us beautiful, clean, cool, smart, young.

– to create among us  rivalry, competitiveness,
– to sabotage every effort to build the kind of community that can enable us to withstand the
pressures of greed.
– to expect fulfillment in the future, and that future is for sale –  if you have enough money, you can buy!

The preaching of the culture is fear: “There isn’t enough to go around.”

Pascal named the awareness of vague hunger the “god-shaped vacuum” within us. We  triumph over it when we learn to trust the very hunger and fear we’ve been taught to avoid. Face it! Embrace it! Recognition of it is the juncture at which we choose: either to seek our grounding in materialism; or to move beyond it – and move from the cultural imperative to the spiritual alternative which invites us to enter fully into all that has been given to us.

Gratitude is our response. Gratitude is the antidote to the poison – it is the hidden art, the unrecognized answer. Gratitude has nothing to do with counting our blessings (and being thankful only if the good outweighs the bad). It has to do with walking headlong into the wholeness of life. And with the realization that, hidden in my gratitude for the life within me and before me is the nourishment I seek in vain through acquisitiveness . It is a practice of living fully the miracle of this moment.

What is it that gratitude achieves? If we can understand that our capacity to praise and be grateful for something in this world and nature hinges on our capacity to involve ourselves in that which we extol , then we can understand that the spirit of gratitude draws us out of ourselves and into involvement. It enables us to open ourselves to be able to forget ourselves in unity with others… If expressing gratitude for what is is an act of being alive, then we are dead people most of the time.


I want to  dig a little into the hold that greed and property have on us. Let anyone say: “Property is sacred,” and critical thinking is stifled. Because this sacrosanct nature of property in the hands of a few is confirmed by law and sanctioned by state power, even the dispossessed majority tends to accept it. While deefinitions vary, exclusiveness and unlimited disposition are the chief elements of ownership as the term is commonly used. It demands analysis. The thing is – none of its foundations are true.

It was the Ancient Romans who developed the concept of ownership. It was Roman law that legitimized the accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense and impoverishment of the many. From there, private ownership of the land formed the basis of the slave-owning, the feudal, the capitalist, and the state-capitalist economic systems successively. This ownership concept is

  1. a) the root of the present global crisis, in which the rich become richer because the poor become poorer.
    b)  the root of impoverishment of the land and of society and the ecological crisis we now face.
  2. c)  the root of most of our warring.
    “But what is the meaning of “mine” and “not mine? …chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world.”  (John Chrysostom)

(These are the effects of greed that I would have us delve into)

(1) The Roman Law ownership is the root of the present global crisis, in which the rich become richer because the poor become poorer.

What is rarely considered is a philosophical and moral view of ownership: “What is ownership-as-it-ought-to-be?”  It’s a question searching for response, especially today among Third World peasants – what is legal does not reflect what is just. They ask:

– Why can we not own the land we till, which our ancestors tilled?

– Whose is the land really? It was there before you and I were born. When landlords and we shall die, the land will still be there.

– What is just with regard to the land?

They look to history for answers. In all primitive societies people exercised collective authority over land. Not until the coming of the Spaniards in this country, was the notion of legal title to land introduced and Roman law of individual ownership propagated. Thus ownership by Spaniards of large tracts of land seized from the natives was recognized as legal.

The urgent question of ownership coming right into the 21st century is essentially the same as the question faced by Christian philosophers in the late Roman Empire. Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine – critique private ownership of the means of subsistence and its effect on both rich and poor. While the Roman law has been passed down, and while all are considered great thinkers and saints, their critique has been silenced. The principles they outlined toward a philosophical and moral view of ownership are 2

  1. Self sufficiency as a purpose of property… One who lacks the necessities of life cannot be other than broken in spirit . Property is for our use – to give people moral self-assurance regarding externals and hence free them for service to others… so people can lead a life consonant with human dignity. It is a means! The greedy are “foolish” they treat it as an end.

2.Koinonia as a purpose of property… Goods are called goods because they do good, and they have been provided by God for the good of humanity. Ownership of wealth should not mean the right to do with property as one wills but rather as God wills. And God’s will is manifest in the creation of people as social, as moving toward unity, as community, or koinonia. The purpose of wealth is to foster koinonia – fellowship that abolishes the differentiation between the few rich who wallow in luxury and the all too many in poverty. This aspect of property is reflected in the comment of John Woolman: “The Quakers came to this country to do good; and they have done very well!”

It is not human to regard property as something with which one may do as one likes simply because it is one’s “own.” To be properly human, one must act in a spirit of community – cast aside the prevailing, absolutist, indiviualistic Roman law legitimation of property and embrace a new rationale of ownership, holding things in such a way that they may be common. The basic difference is in fixing the right of ownership in the static order of keeping or holding instead of recognizing it as a dynamic reality: a duty of sharing.

Backing these principles is the observation”
– just as the foot is the measure of the sandal, so the physical needs of each are the measure of what one should possess. Whatever is excessive is a burden for the body.

– just as air, water, fire, the sun, land – are causes of life, they and all the wealth of earth belong to the human family and not to the few.
– the most basic title to property is the title of need. To this need all others are subordinate and by this need the right of ownership is limited. For the rich to share their wealth constitutes an act of restitution because they have accumulated so much that the poor have been deprived of their birthright.

The patristics denounced the status quo because it granting moral legitimation to what is immoral. They tried to reason with exploiting classes that their wealth was the result of theft, with a view to moving them to restore it by redistribution. They taught a philosophy of ownership based on the view that God is parent and giver and provider for all and that the few must cease stealing the food-producing resources that God destined for the use of all. Then everyone could celebrate their effective participation in the same common nature – in the one human family to which all belonged.

Legal arrangements of property rights are of human origin and should be changed as an expression of a faith-informed ethic based on the true meaning of ownership. Justice cannot be realized until humanity has effectively rejected the idolatry of property.

(2) – The Roman Law dealing with ownership is the root of the impoverishment of the land and of the society and the ecological crisis we now face. The possession of large tracts of land by the few not only destroys the many, pushing them into destitution, dependence, crime, it also destroys the land. It has blinded us to our integral relationship with the natural world. We pride ourselves on outwitting nature. We develop technology to transcend the basic biological law – a law of limits. We look to live beyond the limits that are normal and natural to us as human beings. We keep inventing; we keep trying to get beyond the human condition into some kind of wonderworld. But the more we try, the more we waste-the-world, and destroy our whole situation. Greed!

Other societies might be limited by their lack of technological development. Our society  burns the energies of the planet, trying to get beyond the planet. We invent things that have immediate advantages; we cling to a short-term view that a moment of security or well-being can be had today without enormous charges against tomorrow.

The earth is what we have in common; we cannot damage it without damaging ourselves and all with whom we share it. When we disturb the outer world, we are destroying living forms – animal, trees, etc. And disturb the land we have! (Wendel Berry) The woods and streams inherit all the harms of human enterprise. We burn the world to live; our living blights the trees  . Great machines, herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, de-forestation, desertification.  We are losing probably ten thousand species a year – the greatest set-back to the abundance and diversity of life on earth since the first flickerings of life almost four billion years ago. And when we destroy the living forms of this planet, we destroy modes of God’s presence. If we have a wonderful sense of the divine, if we have refinement of emotion and sensitivity, it is because we live amid such awesome magnificence, it is because of the diversity, the beauty,  the rhythmic movements of the world about us. If we grow in our life vigor, it is because the earthly community challenges us, forces us to struggle to survive, but, in the end, reveals itself as benign providence.

(3) –  The Roman Law ownership concept is the root of most of our warring. “But what is the meaning of “mine” and “not mine?” …chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world.” (Chrysostom). “If we have property, we’ll need walls and weapons to protect it.” ((Francis of Assisi) ) “On account of the things which each one of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders.” (Augustine)  Preparation for nuclear war has turned the whole of North America into a weapons factory in peace time. Mining, milling, and processing; enrichment and nuclear reactors; reprocessing plants that separate out the plutonium; bomb factories for triggers and bomb assembly plants; testing sites for nuclear weapons and nuclear waste repositories. And through all, there is no safe level of radiation.

We’ve set off thousands of nuclear bombs on the planet, over half of them American. We’ve done severe damage to the biosphere and to human health. Subtle and not so subtle damage has happened both to the biosphere and the gene pool. As we produce more radioactive material, we enlarge the susceptible population, we increase the number of children with asthsma and allergies, juvenile diabetes, heart disease, arthritic conditions at age 8 or 9. These children are more vulnerable to a hazardous environment. And we keep enlarging this vulnerable category, even as we increase the toxicity of the environment! That’s a species death process.

We have toxic waste dumps, nuclear power plants, pesticides, herbicides, and defoliants created during the Vietnam War, now used on farms and in cities, plus the radioactive garbage sifting down from the stratosphere (a UN study claims 150 megatons from testing) – and no one keeps track of what is happening.

Luke 12:15   Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

As faith is the antithesis (antidote) to fear, gratitude is the antithesis of greed. Over 100 verses in the Scriptures mandate Thanksgiving. We see it * Ps. 107, 118, and 136. Phil. 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

The central vision of world history in the Bible is that creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature. All are children of one family, heirs of one hope, bearers of one destiny – the care and management of God’s creation. This is the root of gratitude –  this destiny, this dream of God for us that resists all our tendencies to division, hostility, fear, drivenness, and misery.

Without gratitude our future is complusive drivenness. Without gratitude there is no grounding from which to defy all that must be confronted in this estranged world of ours. Gratitude is a response to two specific life-style decisions: simplicity and service (neither of which is possible without community). These decisions are essential because gratitude is not something we can acquire and then use as if it were a new possession. Gratitude grows from a context of health created by “right attitude” and “right livelihood.”

“Right attitude” and “right livelihood” contradict all those cultural living habits that have to do with maintaining what we have and coveting what we don’t. “The greatest wealth of all is having so little that one must notice how much one has in having life itself.” With little to protect and acquire, life is simple. The answer we seek isn’t in saturation but simple thanksgiving. We become what we think: therefore a mindfulness of/gratefulness for our world family!

When wealth is reckoned in commodities, stashed away for some to have and some not to have; when “know-how” is spohisticated, mystifying, technical – possessed by some and not by others; when a sense of solidarity among persons yields to a kind of individuality; when a sense of belonging with others is diminished and a sense of being apart from others takes its place, when $, access, and knowledge are no longer shared among us but are controlled by some, the natural network of caring community collapses. Let us pray for clarity to see all that lives not as raw materials, symbols, but as sister-presences, independent, called out of nothing by no word of ours, bless`ed, here with us. May we live to breathe air worthy of breath – may we become breathers worth their air, makers worth their hire!

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We woke up Saturday morning overcome with grief from the week’s violence in Minnesota, New Orleans and Dallas. After checking in with one another, and trying to find out if any actions had been planned in Baltimore, we chose to host a vigil at McKeldin Square, just off the Inner Harbor. Street zazen: meditating for racial justice and an end to violence.

We sent out word to some friends, got our posters ready and began our public witness around 6:30 pm. Our signs read:

All lives will matter WHEN Black Lives Matter

Awaken from the illusion of separation

Nothing was ever healed with a gun

The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It’s either nonviolence or nonexistence. (MLK)

Peace between people of all colors and creeds

Tourists, families, groups of kids, O’s fans and attendees leaving Bronycon (billed as the world’s largest My Little Pony convention) passed by and, for the most part, offered their support in one form or another. Some people gave us thumbs up or nodded their heads. Others said, “Thank You.” A few approached us to express their affirmation in more heartfelt words and comment on Evie’s cuteness.

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Not long into our vigil we heard chanting up Pratt Street. A march had formed. Michael, Auggie and I (Tucker) got ready to join. Just as we were about to step into the crowd one of the march’s leaders approached us. He took my sign (i.e., “Awaken from the illusion of separation”), read it, then faced me squarely, with tears in his eyes, and said, “You are my brother and I love you.” He gave me and Auggie a hug, took my free arm — I was holding Auggie with my other — and welcomed us into the march.

I have been re-visiting his act of love, welcome and solidarity since Saturday. It continues to teach me.

It reminds me that people with privilege — like myself, based on the color of my skin, my cultural capital, my material wealth, my education, my family’s resources and ties in community, to name just a few — must risk that privilege in the struggle to realize racial equality. What does risking mean? Perhaps it’s different for each person, given their social locations and present moment circumstances. But in that moment, during that march, it meant putting my body — as well as Auggie’s — in the street.

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The march was peaceful. We walked. We chanted. The collective presence was emotional, fierce, focused and wholeheartedly invitational. The leaders called out to people on the sidewalks to join us. Some did. Some took pictures. Some walked away with their heads down. Others stood to face us and gesture their show of support.

The police remained calm and, at least while I was there, didn’t obstruct our right to assemble and protest peacefully.

Auggie was enthralled with the gathering and singing and rhythmic movement of our bodies marching down Pratt Street.

We will continue to hold a vigil, hopefully each week, to witness for racial justice and nonviolence. We welcome you to join us.

 

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As I reflect on the six weeks over which I was blessed with the opportunity to live, work, and play at Jonah House the word “transition” comes to mind over and over again. When I first arrived at the house I had two weeks left in the job where I had been for the past two years and I was in the midst of ending the lease at an apartment where I had been for the same amount of time. I was filled with questions about myself and the future and was uncertain even of how the rest of the summer would pan out. I’ve always struggled with anxiety and times of transition, no matter how small, have always been a major trigger. Coming to Jonah House during this time, I was certainly anxious, but welcomed the opportunity to be consumed fully by community life. I suppose I had somewhat of a fantasy about what this would look like. I envisioned becoming so wrapped up in the day to day that I wouldn’t have time to dwell much on anxiety or transition. What I didn’t realize was that life in the community over the next six weeks would be marked by a constant series of intensely beautiful and rich transitions and through intentional practices my soul would be fed by the changes themselves. I became present in new ways to the changing of the seasons via outdoors work, to cycles of birth and death via the proximity of the birth of baby Evie and the death of Dan Berrigan, and to the sacred passing of wisdom from one generation to the next as I watched the elders (Liz, Carol, and Ardeth) mentor and hand over care of the community to the young folks (Emily, Tucker, and Joe). Amidst all of these transitions I saw that pain and anxiety were inevitable, arguably essential, parts of transition, but that the community had developed a number of practices and rituals surrounding the care and nurturance of one another that laid a beautiful foundation for fostering transformation amidst periods of transition.

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Some of these daily practices were formalized, meaning there was an intentional structure behind which they would happen. Every Sunday the community met as a whole to discuss priorities for the week and to divvy up who would be responsible for various tasks. These meetings created a space in which individuals were held accountable to the care and keeping of the community AND the community as a whole could rally around the care and keeping of an individual as life events took place. When I was entrusted to a specific task, such as the planting of the garden, my relationship to that task was defined in many ways by the accountability I had to the rest of the community to carry forth my responsibilities. Planting the garden became an act of love because I found that truly the accountability I felt stemmed from the deep love and respect I have for the community members. By acting in love, my relationship to the plants transformed, and as I hurried to complete the planting in line with the growing season, I experienced the changing of seasons not as a force outside of me, but as a rhythm that I could become a part of.

When Evie was born the community rallied around the event and we restructured our week and responsibilities to give Emily and Tucker the space to focus on her care and not have to worry about other essential tasks such as cooking, cleaning, mowing, etc. This type of space given to a new family is rare in a society where parents are given minimal family leave and expected to function immediately following a birth with a motto of “business as usual.” It was indescribably beautiful to be present to the transformation of their family and to participate in the process via the act of caregiving. Evie’s arrival in the community shaped my experience in so many ways. Holding her became a daily ritual and an act of meditation, as she taught me to bring myself down to her rhythm and stay present as we rocked back and forth or bounced up and down.

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Another regular community practice was that of “check-ins.” Typically check-ins followed Zazen (seated meditation) practice and were an opportunity for each of us to share freely about whatever seemed important to us in ourselves and from our day. In these we fostered a different kind of accountability to one another that was more based in spiritual practice and growth than in day to day tasks. In addition to these check-ins the community set aside space to support one another even more deeply by choosing a common activity or reading to do together. When I was there we spent an evening teaching ourselves about the Enneagram and discussing our individual personality types. I continued to read and reflect on my Enneagram type beyond that meeting and it became one of the most powerful tools that I’ve encountered towards grappling with some of the big questions that have arisen during my own time of transition.

Outside of routine meetings and check-ins I saw constant examples of community members caring and being attentive to one another in meaningful ways. Many of the more profound spiritual inspirations that I experienced came in casual conversation rather than in Zazen or morning prayer. Tucker frequently asked questions such as “So, how was your experience with the mow tractor today?” borrowing the vocabulary of his son Auggie. These were seemingly simple questions but they gave me the opportunity to reflect on those hours that I spent alone with my thoughts, or the inspiration I drew from the playlists I listened to, or to simply celebrate the joy that I experienced from operating the mow tractor.

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I think that often times we overlook these types of personal reflections because others are not there to wonder about them but they can have a real impact on our spirits, especially during times when transitions give us a unique perspective on ourselves or our circumstances. Throughout my time at the house I appreciated the care and consideration that members had for one another and I saw clearly that the habits that reinforced this level of attentiveness took real work and practice. While many of the moments that impacted me the most seemed to happen spontaneously, they very much sprung from the commitment of the members to the art of intentional living.

Intentional living is in and of itself an act of resistance. To me, it means refusing to live in line with harmful narratives that tell us to consume more, compete more, and separate more. It also means embracing transition or perhaps change in deeper and more engaged ways. As an activist I am always “fighting for change” but I’m not always prepared for the pain, loneliness, or hopelessness that comes with even the most positive of movements. I think community that creates intentional spaces for being with change, as it happens, is an essential ingredient that many change makers overlook.

By Maia Gibbons

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