Peace Train

Nearly 40 years after its founding, a radical Catholic commune finds new allies

Evan Serpick - March 2012

Peace Train

Nearly 40 years after its founding, a radical Catholic commune finds new allies

Evan Serpick - March 2012


As you drive down West Baltimore's Bentalou Street, passing boarded up houses and the brown grass of Easterwood Park, you probably wouldn't notice the unnamed alley marked with signs for Emmanuel Tire and McDonald Salvage unless you were looking for it.

If you did turn down the alley, you'd see belching black smoke and endless rubber towers at the tire factory and the long lines of tractor trailers coming and going from the salvage yard. But if you happened to turn into an unmarked gate on the left, you'd see something else entirely.

"May Peace Prevail on Earth," reads one side of a white post near the gate, surrounded by an herb garden. "May Peace Be in Our Homes and Communities," reads another side.

Nearby is a garden where tomatoes, peppers, and sweet potatoes grow. There are endless fruit trees and, beyond a gate, a large cemetery patrolled by two donkeys, a llama, and two guinea fowl.

There is also a large house, built more than 15 years ago by members of Jonah House, a radical Catholic collective founded on the principles of non-violence, resistance, and community. The group lived in a rented row house on Park Avenue until the opportunity to act as caretakers of St. Peter's Cemetery in exchange for living on the grounds came up in the early '90s.

But Jonah House isn't all about fruit trees and hippie slogans. In the fall, three of the house's four permanent residents were in prison, serving terms for trespassing on Federal property during attempts to damage or destroy nuclear weapons—what Jonah House members call "plowshares actions" after the biblical verse, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:4)

The group was founded in 1973 by famous anti-war activist Philip Berrigan, a former priest who led local protests against the Vietnam War as a member of the Baltimore Four (who poured animal blood on selective-service records at the Baltimore Customs House in 1967) and the Catonsville Nine (who set fire to several hundred draft files outside the selective-service office in Baltimore County).

Berrigan was at one time on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List and spent more than 10 years in prison. He died in 2002 and is the only person buried in St. Peter's in at least the last 40 years. He and his wife, former nun Elizabeth McAlister, now 72, founded the house as a practical matter.

"We thought, 'If we're going to keep this up, some people are going to be going to prison, and some people have kids, and we can't do this by ourselves,'" says McAlister, who has also spent several years in prison, has three grown children, and still lives in Jonah House. "If you have a community then you can make it through those times."

Today, the permanent residents are in their 60s and 70s. Most non-residential community members who participate in its programs, including protests and vigils, distribution of food to the needy, and holding retreats for like-minded groups around the country, are in the same age range. It began to seem that Jonah House, a vestige of the 1960's hippie counterculture, was heading into oblivion.

But a funny thing happened this past fall. The Occupy Baltimore movement brought hundreds of young activists together—many of them exploring political dissent for the first time—and to the great surprise and joy of Jonah House members, they looked to their activist forefathers for wisdom and support.

"We are absolutely kindred with Occupy Baltimore," says McAlister. "We're totally and completely supportive of their work."

Members of the Occupy movement used a work shed at Jonah House to build both a mock schoolhouse that they erected at the site of a planned youth jail (to suggest funds should be used to build schools instead) and a mock recreation center that they erected outside City Hall to protest the privatization of seven local rec centers. McAlister and other Jonah House affiliates joined the protest at the youth-jail site and felt energized by the connection.

"We don't know a lot of these Occupy folks, that's the beauty of it," says Willa Bickham, 69, a member of the extended Jonah House community and founder of Viva House, an affiliated group in Southwest Baltimore. "It's not the same choir that we're preaching to, it's the young folks, and that gives us such energy and hope."

It's a miserable January evening, cold, with icy rain steadily pouring from a misty sky. Traffic backs up along Madison Street, as commuters rush to get to warm homes. As drivers pass Baltimore City Jail and turn to enter the Jones Falls Expressway, they encounter a half-dozen protesters, all over age 50, including McAlister, holding signs that read, among other things, "Abolish the Death Penalty: It's Dead Wrong."

This protest has been going on every Monday night for 18 years, when Maryland executed its first citizen after reinstating the death penalty in 1976. Some passersby honk, a few reach their thumbs up, but most just pass, inured to the weekly part of their commute.

"We got more comments and questions around the time of Troy Davis's execution," says one protestor, referring to the convicted murder executed in Georgia last year, despite concerns some had about his guilt.

The next morning at 5:00 a.m., McAlister drives to Panera to pick up donated bread to include in Jonah House's weekly food distribution. Every week, Jonah House volunteers pack about 100 carefully balanced grocery bags, using donations, food purchased from food pantries for 18 cents a pound, and anything that they gather from their gardens and fruit trees. By 7:30 a.m., several dozen local people are lined up to pick up their food.

Among the volunteers doling out food is Ari Witkin, a Minnesota native and observant Jew who graduated from Goucher College two years ago with a degree in peace studies.

"I felt a real kinship with the people here," says Witkin, who attends Jonah House's Sunday services, in which people reflect on weekly experiences, take turns leading scripture reflections, and share a meal. "It's not strictly Catholic. I've met Jews, atheists, agnostics, Hindus, and Christians of every stripe."

After the distribution, Witkin unlatches the fence to the cemetery, where the animals are kept to keep vegetation down. There is a llama named Micah, a small donkey named Paz, and a big, friendly donkey named Vinnie. He's named after Vinnie Quayle, the founder of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, who helped Jonah House find its current home.

"It's an interesting story, how they ended up there," says Quayle, a former priest who has long had a close relationship with the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The Archdiocese owned St. Peter's Cemetery, which is filled primarily with the graves of Irish Catholics who mainly populated the neighborhood in the first half of the 20th century. As Catholics moved out, the cemetery fell into disrepair, with growth covering the gravestones and abandoned vehicles dotting the grounds.

"In the mid-'80s, Dan Rodricks wrote a column for The Sun blasting the Archdiocese for the neglect of this cemetery," says Quayle. "Some Irishmen called me and said 'Let's go to this cemetery and clean it up,' and I got involved in this group of Irish do-gooders."

But the group, composed mostly of elderly men, after several years of weekend work, realized that they weren't up to the task. "We were making little progress," says Quayle. "We would clear ground and then, when the summer came, it was grown over again. You had folks in their 60s, and, after 10 years, they were in their 70s, and they started dying on us."

At the same time, residents of Jonah House were feeling constrained in the row house they had been renting for almost 20 years—particularly its small backyard.

"I was bothered by the fact that you could never sit in a circle," McAlister says of the place. "You get more than six people, you weren't in a circle anymore. We wanted a place where there was more space."

Quayle, who had known Berrigan and McAlister for years, worked out a deal in which Jonah House could lease the space adjacent to the cemetery for $1 a year, in exchange for clearing and maintaining the cemetery.

"My role was to keep things quiet with the Archdiocese," says Quayle. "The thought was, 'What's gonna happen if the crazy Irish Catholic conservatives in town find out Jonah House—who are being arrested for pouring blood over nuclear weapons—are being allowed by the Archdiocese to live on their property?'"

The deal was struck in 1993 and Jonah House members went to work clearing the land, planting gardens and fruit trees, and building their two-story house from the ground up, all by themselves. And in the 19 years that they have been at the site, there has never been any tension with the Archdiocese.

"They have done exactly what they said they were going to do," says Quayle. "They resanctified the damn place!"

The connection between Jonah House's aging radicals and Occupy Baltimore's younger ones might never have happened if it weren't for the efforts of Mike McGuire, a 39-year-old organizer of the Occupy movement who provided a bridge between the groups.

In 1990, when McGuire was a senior at Mount St. Joe's High School, the first Persian Gulf war was raging. Worried about being drafted, McGuire looked into applying for conscientious-objector status and was referred to Phil Berrigan.

"He said, 'Well, if you're looking for religious reasons in the Catholic Church to oppose war, I'm afraid you're a little screwed,'" McGuire recalls with a laugh.

Berrigan advised McGuire—who never registered with the selective service—and remained in touch with Jonah House. When the Occupy Baltimore movement started up, he reached out to the community for guidance and support. "We wanted to have that inter-generational presence," he says.

When McGuire and several volunteers went to Jonah House to build components for its demonstrations, the young activists were amazed that the community existed.

"None of the people I was working with were familiar with Jonah House," says McGuire. "Everybody was thrilled to learn of this community, familiarizing themselves with a little bit of local radical history. A lot of folks don't know about the Catonsville 9 stuff—that's already an eternity ago."

The Occupy Baltimore leaders invited McAlister to speak at the encampment, and she readily agreed, but, as McGuire says, "Our level disorganization didn't make it happen."

Still, the members of Jonah House and the younger activists are both eager to build on their connections.

"There's a continuity there, a perseverance," says Brian Barrett, a longtime Jonah House affiliate. "It gives an institutional memory and links the past with the future."

At 72, McAlister has no intention of backing off her dedication to resistance. She recalls her prison stints with pride, including three years in Federal prison in Alderson, WV, for disarming a B-52 nuclear cruise missile launcher at Griffith's Air Force Base in Rome, New York. She did a short stint in Howard County for actions against The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which, she says, did "90-some percent of its work for the Department of the Navy."

"I think we will be doing actions at Hopkins again," she says. "We backed off that for a period, but I think it's looming at us again."





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