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.
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.
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
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.
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.
It was a pleasure to have you stay with us. You were a great addition to the community and you are missed. I fondly remember the evenings and mornings doing sitting meditation in the zendo. Be well, brother. Joe Byrne.