With our plans for an ongoing travel with Agape’s new book, Loving Life on the Margins: The Story of the Agape Community, we named the tour, “The Agape Legacy Book Tour: 42 Years of Building Nonviolent ” and kicked off the late winter, into spring phase of the tour on Feb. 24th at St. Susanna’s Parish, in Dedham, MA, to be followed by a presentation at Pax Christi RI the following week on March 1st. In the meantime, we were gearing up for our planned weeks of travel to follow in Maryland, Washington DC, and North Carolina.
Pax Christi Rhode Island
Bill Waters, Pax Christi Rhode Island chair, coordinated thirty or so of the faithful from the Rhode Island area to attend, assisted by dear friends and Pax Christi members, Joan Crowley and Fr. Ray Tetrault. Jeanelle Wheeler, whose mother, Teresa Wheeler, is a long-time member of Agape’s Mission Council, joined us with a friend from Brown University. We refer to Jeanelle as a member of the “In Utero” group of Agape young people who attended Agape meetings and events “In Utero”.
Jeanelle brought another friend from Brown University, where Jeanelle is working on her Master’s degree. Enthusiasm was high among the attendees, as both the elder and younger participants shared feelings of loneliness and isolation over the current political scene and early coronavirus warnings. The book sold well as we endorsed and embraced our long connections with Pax Christi and read sections from the book that outlined those many Pax Christi alliances.
Maryland and Washington DC
Our first stop was Gaithersburg, Maryland and the home of Michael Goggin, Metro Maryland Regional Director of IVCUSA. In the past quarter century, IVC has emerged as a Jesuit volunteer corps for an older generation. It engages more than 600 adults aged 50 and older in two days of service per week, 10 months per year in a variety of social service settings with non-profit organizations.
The entire Goggin family, greeted us at their home in Gaithersburg. We had great conversations with the three Goggin young men, and fell immediately in love with their son Jerome, age 10, who requested a personal copy of Brayton’s earlier book, The Many Sides of Peace: Christian Nonviolence, The Contemplative Life, and Sustainable Living, after he spotted a copy in a box with others in the trunk of our car. After a great meal in a local restaurant with Mike and his wife, Tess, we headed out the next morning for a talk at an Ignatian Volunteer meeting at the home of two IVC members, Julia and Tony Albrecht after fighting record-breaking traffic in DC.
Amongst the elder IVC volunteers, we were impressed with the volunteering they were doing with migrants, at homeless shelters, with literacy programs and more.Reading from chapters in the book, Brayton and I offered comments on our relationship with Jesuits throughout the years, including Fr. Richard McSorley of Georgetown University, who opened the first Peace Center there in the 1970’s, as well as Daniel Berrigan SJ, and our Fordham professor friend, Fr. Tom Massaro, and supporters and sustainers who serve Agape faithfully, Fr. Fred Enman SJ and David Gill SJ, our retired chaplain in non-residence for over 12 years. Serious, committed activists in the group. Still at it after all these years.
Jonah House, Viva House
By Wednesday, March 4th, as we departed from Agape for Baltimore, we were aware of the seriousness of the coronavirus in China and the news of its spread, but somehow, we were like most Americans, not thinking that death and mayhem reported in China, would really reach us. So, we departed, mindful of the necessity of hand and elbow bumps and some other preliminary precautions, without a sense of encompassing alarm. Our first stop was Viva House Catholic Worker, co-founded by Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh.
Serving the poor, and doing peace work since the 1960’s, we were inspired by the legacy of Viva House, having read Willa and Brendan’s book, The Long Loneliness in Baltimore: Stories Along the Way, with its heart-wrenching first-person narratives of serving sisters and brothers in the inner-city of West Baltimore where Freddie Gray lived, was arrested and forcibly taken into custody by four police officers, having been driven hand-cuffed and without seat belt in a police van, where he sustained spinal cord injuries and died two days later.
We reminisced with Willa and Brendan about our connections with friends from Jonah House and the extended peace network in the early years of the Atlantic Life Community, a loose network of east coast resistance communities which began in the early 70’s with Liz McAlister and Philip Berrigan shortly after Phil and others involved in Catonsville draft raid, completed their jail time. Willa and Brendan shared spoke of their intimate involvement as support people for the Catonsville 9 raid on the Catonsville, Maryland draft center during the Vietnam War.
We shared memories of our mutual friendship with Tom Lewis, artist and member of Catonsville, a long-time friend of Agape and extended community member who launched his own Catholic Worker effort, Emma House in Worcester. We spoke of transition, of being elder and aging radicals and the need to empower young people to take the reins of leadership as new models of resistance would emerge.
Off we went to dinner at Jonah House, founded by Philip Berrigan, Liz McAlister, his wife, and many others, eventually comprising hundreds of activists in resistance-based Christianity which continues to this day.
Present day Jonah House consists of Paul Magno, long-time resister and activist who, together with Joe Byrne, land steward, musician and peacemaker greeted us with new member, Jemila Sequeira, former Director of The Whole Community Project and Food Dignity Community Organizer at Cornell Cooperative Extension Service who prepared our vegan dinner. We all were joined by Rainbow Williams, who is committed to change in America’s urban communities by establishing a collective to help assist and support our youth and disenfranchised families flourish as a healthy community. This collective will focus on critical issues such as improving healthy food access and decreasing the murder rate in Baltimore City. Our dinner conversation was full of warmth, fire, and commitment but not without intensity as we discussed the rigors of Jonah House as it is now configured, an inter-racial community and the challenge for white peace community members to divest from white privilege.
We were delighted at the dinner time arrival of Kate Fiegel, former member of the young adult group which had formed and eventually disbanded at Agape known as The Creatively Maladjusteds.
Later, friends of Jonah House joined our circle as we began our sharing with Joe Byrne singing Phil Och’s song, “When I’m Gone,” to the accompaniment of a harpsichord. Being at Jonah House brought back our many years of travel back and forth to the Pentagon for witnesses and arrests with the Atlantic Life Community as we co-founded an early resistance community in Boston, known as Ailanthus, which became part of the ALC life-force, which has extended to Agape for all of these 42 years.
West Baltimore, Harriet Tubman House and the Freddie Gray Memorial
The next day, we accompanied Joe Byrne to the West Baltimore neighborhood, poverty stricken and devastated with abandoned buildings, shootings, murders, and squalor amidst an inspired urban garden named after Harriet Tubman of underground railroad fame. The garden and its involvement with local residence, growing and supplying food, was, in part, created by Ausar-Mesh Amen, a third-generation natural healer who grew up in Baltimore. His father, a southern sharecropper, herbalist, blacksmith, and engineer passed down valuable information on the healing properties of plants to Ausar. In turn, he has shared his knowledge and wisdom through lectures, workshops and community organizing in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore City. (from the Jonah House website: www.jonahhouse.org.)
Azuar’s inspired urban garden feeds many in the community while Azuar teaches organic gardening within the extremes of poverty, with a special focus on youth. He perseveres amid oppressive violence and murder in an abandoned neighborhood. We were consumed by sorrow as we walked the neighborhood, to see such devastation, the burned-out buildings, the despair and hopelessness that seemed to permeate the landscape.
We stood in silence in front of the mural painted in memory of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, who was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department and subsequently charged for possessing a knife. While being transported in a police van, handcuffed and without a seat belt, Gray fell into a coma after his spine was snapped during the punishing ride. Police responsible were acquitted of his murder and riots broke out in Baltimore after his death on April 12 2015.
Our connections at Jonah House extended to include two members of Agape’s Mission Council, Edgar Hayes and Ann Rader, who connected with Asuar about their own community, Freedom Farm, modeled after Agape almost 20 years ago. New relationships sprouting up among the youth of both communities. A heartening sign indeed!!!!
Dorothy Day Catholic Worker
We drove that evening to DC for a Friday night dinner and a clarification of thought with members of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker. After dinner, where we were joined by former intern Nathan Beall and his fiancé Hee, Art Laffin, friend of over 40 years, and co-founder of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, who, for nearly four decades, has been an organizer, writer and speaker in the faith-based nonviolent movement for peace, social justice, and eradicating poverty and war. He has participated in numerous actions for abolishing nuclear weapons, killer drones and all weapons, ending U.S. war-making in Iraq and Afghanistan, prohibiting torture and racial violence, and upholding human rights for the homeless, immigrants, the poor, prisoners, including those on Death Row.
Over 40 people packed the living room, including Cathleen Cooney, one of our oldest friends from the early days in Boston among them. Art greeted us with a touching remembrance of our friendship which brought us back to the 70’s when we met Art during Ailanthus vigils at Draper Labs in Cambridge, a first-strike think tank for nuclear weapons. It was a memorable time of sharing stories with participants about our collective commitment to radical, pacifist Christianity. We also sold another bunch of books.
Assisi House Community, DC
After breakfast at Jonah House, Kathy Boylan escorted us on a short walk to Assisi House, an intentional Franciscan Community whose chief celebrant at Mass was Fr. Joseph Nangle, a missionary in Peru and Bolivia, and a legendary octogenarian peacemaker. We met many community members, including former Pax Christi international director Sr. Marie Denis. An intimate, sacramental marked our time at Assisi Community, small community members embracing with a shimmering, spiritual brilliance.
Move to The Marist Center in DC
By Saturday morning, we moved into the Marist Center, home and headquarters of the men’s religious order of Marist Priests where we were hosted by dear friend and social justice colleague of years, with whom we had recently been reunited, Fr. Paul Frechette, SM, provincial superior of the Society of Mary U.S Province. Paul, Brayton and Suzanne were allies since our days together in Boston in the 80’s. A familiar theme of this trip is that of seeing “old friends.” Getting older, we guess.Paul and his community put us up for four peace-filled and hospitable days.
Potter’s House Café: Church of Our Saviour
After our arrival at The Marist Center, we took off for Potter’s House in DC, a café and bookstore affiliated with the The Church of Our Saviour Community founded by Gordon Cosby, inspired visionary minister who worked in tandem with Jim Wallis, the Sojourner Community and many other pacifist groups. Our host, Dixcy Bosley-Smith from one of the several communities still in existence with the church, offered her collective on the history and background of Potter’s House. We were joined by Edgar Hayes, Ann Rader, co-founders of Freedom Farm, modeled after Agape and founded 20 years ago, with both Ann and Edgar introducing their thoughts about community, its struggles and highlights. Brayton’s childhood friend, Barry Winkelman, joined us as did Bobbie and John Stewart, who were part of the Ailanthus community in Boston in the 80’s.
Paki Weiland of Code Pink, who had lived in Central MA for a spell, also joined us.
Some folks from Assisi House came back for a second round, and our sharing was intense as we grappled with the state of the world, still not in major alarm about the coronavirus, though carrying through with elbow bumping.
The Coronavirus Begins to have an Impact
We were invited to stay with the Marist priests at the Washington headquarters which provided the spiritual reassurance of daily Mass and the hospitality of the visiting priests and sisters from Mexico who joined us during the day. Ominous signs of the coronavirus were closing in around us, as we learned that thousands were quarantined on cruise ships, 600 infected and that the virus was spreading to Latin America. By our second week of travel, the virus had killed 4,000 people and infected 90,000 worldwide. People in the U.S. were beginning to die.
Greenbelt Catholic Intentional Community Greenbelt, MD, March 8
We gathered with the Greenbelt Intention Catholic Community, a lay community which relies on committed priest to celebrate their weekly Eucharist, and our friend, Fr. Paul, was this Sunday’s Celebrant. Over thirty of us were now in full virus protocol, no touching, each of us trying to keep our distance. We shared an inspired Eucharist and had a lively discussion on the meaning of lay-inspired communities who follow the nonviolent Jesus and are welcoming to all. A gay couple and a transgendered woman, assisted in leading the service.
Eli and Joy McCarthy arrived with their two children, Lazarus and Rose for a special reunion as Joy was a youngster when we began Agape with her Dad and Mom, Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy and Mary McCarthy, in 1982. We were thrilled to reunite with them.
The American Indian Museum and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture
We went to the American Indian Museum and to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and in retrospect, we perhaps acted with too facile an assumption about the risks to us and others from the now spreading coronavirus, though there were still no national alarm bells. The two together on back to back days laid bare the two most violent and racially oppressed eras in our white privileged history. These temples of truth and suffering were horrific to chronicle and exhibit to the world. Lord Have Mercy on our white power and supremacy.
Little did we want to admit or, at the time, deeply acknowledge, that while we were gaining so much inspiration from our travels, the virus was moving into DC. None of the museum attendees were keeping virus distancing protocols amidst the hundreds, probably thousands of visitors. What could we have been thinking?
Pax Christi National Meeting with new director, Johnny Zokovitch and staff
On our last gig in the District, we met with a dynamic group of Pax Christi young people, as well as staff from other peace and justice organizations in the Catholic University complex which houses Pax Christi. We shared the Agape story and our alliances with Pax Christi over the years, highlighting our relationship with Pax Christi MA and the regional coordinators Pat Ferrone and Fr. Rocco Poppulo.
We read from our book and discussed what it means to change old models and look to the new as we enter the era of “a new kind of Catholic” where social justice and a contemplative life are a given. Questions abounded like: “How do you swing Agape financially?” “Do you have sister communities that offer support and comradeship in an anti-communal world of rugged individualism.
At a meeting with Johnny Zokovitch, we discussed the need for greater networking among young people in Agape, Pax Christi and other peace communities. We concluded our energizing visit with a firm agreement for more talks and concrete plans for such alliances.
Next Stop North Carolina:
As we leave DC, the virus begins to engulf the northeast and New York is beginning to look like Italy.
With deep consternation we begin our journey to the western mountains of North Carolina, and to visit our co-founders and friends since the beginning days of Agape in 1980, Steve and Nancy James. Our long-standing and dear Agape lifers, Baptist missionaries in Haiti for over 30 years, Steve a medical doctor and Nancy a nurse, both endured the cholera outbreak in Haiti. We prayed together, ate together, visited their family of six children and eleven grandchildren, and what a distancing, joyful reunion it was for all of us, especially wonderful to see all of the children, though we stayed at the recommended distance.
At that time, the mountains were seemingly virus-free, but we had to ask ourselves: “Are we luxuriating in a false sense of protection?”
Along the tour we had met gifted and inspired Christian activists, Catholic Workers, and now, in North Carolina, a meeting that we suspected few if any would attend, at the Celo Quaker Meeting in Burnsville, North Carolina. We got the James’ take as health care professionals and committed Christians, on the spreading Covid 19. As we worried and prayed, we still enjoyed the predictable delight in each other’s company as we hadn’t been to visit the James’ in North Carolina for fifteen years.
Our final book talk was one we knew only a few would venture to attend, and a few did. The Quaker Meeting at Celo is located on an 1,100-acre communal settlement co-founded in 1937.
The final leg of our tour showed signs of an American culture about to close down. Only 10 brave folks showed but we were able to manage a lively discussion on the Quaker tradition, focusing on: “What does it mean to live what you believe?” “Does the Quaker tradition inspire us to walk our religious talk?” “What does it mean to carry on a tradition?”
As we bid goodbye to our dear friends, Steve and Nancy, their children and grandchildren, new and old friends, the news was becoming more and more grim: the states were beginning to close down. We heard some initial talk on perhaps limiting travel across state lines, if necessary.
It was time to pack the car and to shelter in place. We arrived home to our community mates, George Aguiar and Dixon George deciding to shelter in place and, in effect, self-quarantine, given the extensive nature of our travels. We were home less than a week and Governor Baker closed down all commerce, everything but food and medicine in Massachusetts, including the closing of all schools until May or longer.
New York City, where so many of Brayton’s relatives live and where he grew up in the suburb of Pelham, is now the focal point for the spread of the coronavirus worldwide.
Our emotions upon return are in conflict. It was a true grace to be able to offer eight presentations during our tour down the east coast before the virus turned us homeward. We were forced to cancel our planned retreat with Jim and Shelley Douglass in Birmingham, Alabama, “Finding Our Prophetic Heart.” We had to cancel our visit to dear friend, Billy Neal Moore. former death row inmate of 17 years, whose extraordinary story of redemption and release is still stunning since his commutation from death row Georgia in 1990.
Now what? All business as usual worldwide is shut down. Still, we have these sustaining moments of great unity, harmony, prayer, sacraments and community-building that we can share now with the wider community, hoping that the narrative of the Agape Legacy Tour, limited and curtailed as it became, can offer a sense of our deep connection in Jesus’s nonviolent love as we move in his love during this catastrophe, knowing that we may be afraid, but that we will never be orphaned, alone or abandoned. Now the difficult journey of acting on our belief in these staggering times. This wall mural at the Freddie Gray Memorial Site seems like a fitting theme to end this narrative on our amazing, sobering, uplifting and staggering Agape Legacy Book Tour.