Note: The following is a letter/email sent out in September by the emeritus members of Jonah House, who are Liz McAlister, Ardeth Platte, and Carol Gilbert. Liz has since moved to New York City (contact information below). She is dearly missed in Baltimore but continues her wonderful work for peace in the Big Apple.

September, 2016

Dear friends and family,

For the past five years, we, the elders at Jonah House, have been in the process of turning over the Jonah House Community and St. Peter’s Cemetery maintenance to the younger generation. As we continue this transition, we have begun, once again, to feel the freedom to re-enter more fully into the ministry of peacemaking.

The new core community at Jonah House – Emily Parr, Tucker Brown, and Joe Byrne – were attracted to our charism. They had participated in the life of Jonah House over the years, and responded to the call to come. They are forming community here! They are embracing this space with all the creativity that comes out of their lives and experience.

We find them respectful of the history and witness of Jonah House at the same time as they embrace the challenge to put their own stamp on it and to recruit new members. Check out the reactivated website – We experience them and their commitment as strong, deeply rooted in the Spirit, and open to the participation of a wide circle of family and friends. Also, the children (Auggie and Evie) bring wonder and amazement! Our yearnings for new community are gratefully fulfilled in them and in their process. What a blessing!

As we transition we want you to know that we have closed the Jonah House account so checks may no longer be made out to it.

Also, we provide you with the most current contact information:

Emily, Tucker, and Joe:

Jonah House, 1301 Moreland Av, Baltimore MD 21216
Phone: 410-233-6238

Donations for programs should be made out to St. Peter’s Cemetery Restoration Fund.

Carol Gilbert, OP and Ardeth Platte, OP:

1303 Moreland Av, Baltimore MD 21216
Phone: 410-908-4635

Elizabeth McAlister:
133 W. 70th St, New York, NY 10023
Phone: 443-804-6938

(After 43 years working to build the Jonah House vision, Liz feels the call and need to leave and to embrace whatever the Spirit is opening…)

It is a new moment, a new day and we give gratitude to God. We say “Presente” to all who lived and served here but have now left this life. We continue to celebrate their resurrection. We are profoundly grateful to the builders, work crews, residents, donors, caretakers, counselors, visitors, etc. who gave for us to be able to continue this St. Peter’s Cemetery oasis and our own peacemaking lives. We express deeper gratitude to the new community in the transformation being lived, as they carry Jonah House, the International Peace House/Community, into the future.

All of you remain in our hearts and prayers,

Liz, Carol, and Ardeth


When the Turks exterminated millions of Armenians…

Where were you, God?

When millions perished needlessly in World War I…

Where were you, God?

When Stalin killed millions of his own people…

Where were you, God?

When the Nazis murdered six million Jews during the Holocaust…

Where were you, God?

When the Japanese slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese in Nanking…

Where were you, God?

When Dresden was firebombed during World War II…

Where were you, God?

When the United States dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki…

Where were you, God?

When the U.S. destroyed Vietnam in order to save it, killing millions in the process…

Where were you, God?

When millions were murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the killing field…

Where were you, God?

When deaths squads killed tens of thousands in Indonesia…

Where were you, God?

When fanatical Chinese communists killed tens of thousands during the Cultural Revolution…

Where were you God?

When death squads disappeared tens of thousands in Central and South America…

Where were you, God?

When Hutus went on a genocidal rampage against the Tutsis in Rwanda…

Where were you, God?

When thousands of gay men were dying of AIDS and the government refused to do anything…

Where were you, God?

When the U.S. and its allies killed hundreds of thousands through sanctions and occupation in Iraq…

Where were you, God?

When Catholic priests sexually abused thousands of children…

Where were you, God?

When Syria slid into a vicious civil war…

Where were you, God?

When humans built an industrial civilization that poisoned the planet with carbon emissions…

Where were you, God?

* * *

When the world needs compassion…

We are your heart, God

When crimes need to be witness and revealed…

We are your eyes, God

When truth needs to speak to power…

We are your mouth, God

When injustice needs to be confronted…

We are your conscience, God

When the lost need to be gathered and embraced…

We are your arms, God

When those who are suffering need relief…

We are your hands, God

On the long road to peace and justice…

We are your feet, God


By Joe Byrne


Note: Below is the text of an leaflet that was distributed at the Fleet Week Baltimore Welcome Ceremony, at Baltimore’s inner harbor, on October 12. Jonah House and Pledge of Resistance – Baltimore organized a peace vigil to counter the celebration of war that is fleet week.

Credit: Patrick O'Neil

Photo Credit: Patrick O’Neil

* * *

On October 15, during Fleet Week, Baltimore has the dishonor of being the site where the new stealth destroyer, the USS Zumwalt, will be commissioned. It is a dishonor because the Zumwalt is a boondoggle of the grossest proportions and as such is a massive theft of the U.S. taxpayer and, in particular, the poor. It will also undermine true security in the United States.


When research and development is taken into consideration, the price tag for the Zumwalt is nearly 6 billion dollars. This is obscene given the needs of the people of the United States, from health care to education to basic infrastructure repair. Originally the Zumwalt was to be the first of 32 new stealth destroyers, but because this new line had ballooned in cost—81 percent above the Navy’s original cost estimate to Congress—the Zumwalt line was reduced to only three ships. At six billion dollars each, this is still three ships too many.

Martin Luther King once said that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” If we are not already there, the Zumwalt brings us perilously close to spiritual death. But the Zumwalt is not only an obscenity in spiritual terms. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower put it: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” In moral terms, the Zumwalt is an outrage; in fiscal terms, it is indefensible.

Baltimore is a poor city, plagued by the social ills caused by poverty, such as unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, the drug trade, and the horrendous violence that comes with it. Six billion dollars would do much to alleviate the poverty of Baltimore. Six billion dollars would buy 50,000 homes. It would pay the yearly energy costs for 1.2 million households. It would buy all the groceries in a year for 1.5 million families. It would pay a year’s worth of health care premiums for 333,000 families. It would pay for the education of 400,000 students in Baltimore’s schools.

It should also be noted that the Zumwalt will also be exorbitantly wasteful in terms of its fuel use. When fully operational, it will take 78 megawatts to power the ship. That’s enough to power 80,000 homes. And, unlike a nuclear-powered ship, the Zumwalt will run on carbon-based fuel. That will lead to a lot of carbon pollution, the leading cause of global warming. The U.S. military is already the biggest single emitter of carbon pollution in the world. Ships like the Zumwalt will make things much worse.

But it isn’t just a matter of paying bills or carbon emissions. The six billion dollar Zumwalt is not only a criminal misappropriation of U.S. taxpayer money and a major polluter, it is also a betrayal of our true security needs. In our world today, more weapons will not make us safer. In fact, the more we spend on weapon systems, and the more we deploy them in conflicts across the world, the more we create enemies who resent us for our military aggression. The United States would do better to use the six billion dollars it takes to build a Zumwalt to provide humanitarian aid for the victims of war.


The motto of the Zumwalt is “Peace through power.” It is a truism that power corrupts. The only peace that power offers is a corrupt peace. It is a peace that enforces the status quo, and endorses an ideology that profits the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless. It is a peace that says “Might makes Right.” The false prophet says peace, peace, when there is no peace. The true prophet knows peace can be never be imposed by military power. The stealth ship called the Zumwalt represents a peace that is a stealthy form of war. It will inevitably be used to wage war on other countries, and is already inflicting suffering on the poor of Baltimore and the rest of the United States.

No more Zumwalts!!

No more war!!

Contact info:

Jonah House
Pledge of Resistance – Baltimore


By Art Laffin

Praise God our Creator, Source of all life.
I will sing praise to God as long as I live.

Do not put your trust in princes and rulers,
in mortals, in whom there is no salvation.
When they die they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose hope is in God,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry and welcomes the immigrant;
who seeks to end racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination;
who labors to eradicate poverty, proclaim liberty to captives, and practice restorative justice!

For the Lord sets prisoners free,
and opens the eyes of the blind;
the Lord raises up those who are bowed down
and loves the righteous and those who do the works of mercy and peace.

Stand with and for the victims; renounce all racial profiling, violence and killing;
disarm all guns, killer drones and nuclear weapons;
beat all swords into plowshares;
abolish torture, capital punishment and war;
protect all life and creation;
love one another!

For just as the Lord watches over the homeless and refugees;
and upholds the orphan and widow, so must we do the same.
But the way of the wicked He brings to ruin!

To all earthly rulers,
to people everywhere—
take notice: the reign of God is at hand!
Follow God’s commands, not opinion polls!

God is sovereign over all earthly rulers and powers.
God, alone, is our judge—it is God who will have the last word;
not presidents, generals, judges and the rich and powerful.

Happy are those who put their trust in God.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice;
who care for the earth and practice nonviolence;
who seek to create the Beloved Community.

Let all generations praise God.
Let us praise God forever!

These poems were written by Joergen Ostensen when he and his father George visited Jonah House a couple months back. George coordinated the building of the Community House with more than 100 peacemakers from all parts of U.S., and some from Europe, from May 1995 to June 1996.  Joergen was baptized by Steve Kelly, SJ, in the Community House on Oct. 10, 1999. Sr. Ardeth is joyfully one of his godmothers.


The Never Ending Storm

By Joergen Ostensen

Thunder in Baltimore,
The storm floats in
Like the cruise ships at the inner harbor.
Rain follows thunder
Even as lightning precedes it.

But the downpour will not end the reign of heat.
Hot nights and hotter days,
Pools full of people packed together
Like the stone-faced sharks in their prison with glass walls.

Other prisons are glass-less;
Few can see in and less care to.
Edifices of crisscrossing steel overflowing with sad stories.
Yet those that enter usually return.

Thin streaks of pale blue descend from hazy heavens;
For fleeting moments the gods could see this strange town of sand.
A black land ruled by blue people.
Crossing streets and battered city blocks whose favorite son was Gray.

But no god gazes on these rows of houses holding hands;
Here the jails are crammed like swimming pools while the churches stand empty.
Thin blades of grass grow out of cracks under crosses;
Shards of bottles broken like the dreams of their drinkers litter the
Where grandma would have strolled on a Sunday in a forgotten time.

The rain has come.
Sheets of tears falling from somewhere,
All is wet
No discrimination
There’s enough of that everywhere else.

The city that can’t clean itself takes a shower.
Waters from the sky clear away the blood from the playground;
Tomorrow the children will play there after work.
After the corner slows down.

Electricity pours down from the heavens,
On the school by the park.
The place no one will pay for at City Hall.
Where the pupils were never told the name Benjamin Franklin
And will never hold his picture in their hands.

The storm will pass on before The Sun has been delivered.
Tomorrow the sun will bake west Baltimore again;
And the heavens will empty of dark clouds…
And yet…

Long has a darkness clung to these streets unhindered;
Staunchly waiting like the glass in the crevice where Winchester meets the curb.

* * *

Just Balloons on a Bridge

By Joergen Ostensen

It will be a hot night;
They all are in August
On the West Baltimore streets.
Where people die and rats live.

The sun is setting;
Reds and deep purples
Like a Ravens jersey painted over.
Exhaust and tobacco smoke fill the air.

Cars line the curbs in all directions.
Broken down Toyotas from another century;
A beaten up Chevy that remembers every crash like it was yesterday;
And a sleek new Mustang in a deep scarlet
The color of blood.

Lafayette off Bentalou
Over the bridge with no water underneath.
To the left a sign reading FOOD MART.
Maybe once but no anymore;
Only an empty lot with a pile of trash.
Probably a grocery store run by the rats.

On the other side kids play on the playground
Slides long and hot from a day in the Maryland oven.
A game of hoops has started
Teenagers call out insults and challenges.
Somebody gets hot;
The beautiful swishing of nylon that has yet to rip.
A brand new car speeds past;
The music blares,
A rappers raspy voice permeates from the custom speakers.
Everybody sees him but nobody witnesses.

But the bridge like the city is filled with sad stories.
On the white siding there’s a shrine
Not ten feet away from the court where the kid steps back for a J;
He’s money from outside even though his family is broke.

The wind tosses the red balloons;
Catching the eye of the passerby.
The balloons are the same shade as the Mustang;
A tinsel cross sparkles in the sunset.
Its not Christmas.
RIP letters that tell a story.

“We love you.”
Inscription on the white siding
A fading photo touched by days in the heat
Discolored like the slides where the kids always play.

A boy in a photo on a bridge,
Dark skin and darker hair;
Dread locks cut short;
A shadow of a smile;
On a shadow of a man who couldn’t have been twenty.

His name is written in magic marker
The fallen angel who should have gotten a bronze star.
Everybody knows what happened and it wasn’t a car crash.

Once he was a smiling boy
Who slid the slide and shot the three ball
He probably laughed and cried like all the rest.
He probably dreamed of a future
But there is no future on the white paneled bridge with no water underneath.
All that’s left of him now is balloons that the wind;
The plaything of the wind.

“Next point wins.”
A cry from the players on the blacktop.
A drive and a kick and jumper from the wing.
That one didn’t miss but I pray the others do.

The kids run home;
On sidewalks that have been broken for decades.
No one wants to see the streets when the red leaves the sky.
No one wants to see Tavon’s friend in the Mustang.


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.


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.


“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!



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)?


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.



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.


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.


by Joe Byrne


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