“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.
I 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!
As Fyodor Dostoyevski wrote: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” You brought a lot of love to Jonah House. Hope it wasn’t too dreadful. Be well, brother. Joe Byrne.