At Jonah House on Park Avenue, someone is always going off to jail for crimes of civil disobedience that many people today find odd.
Peter DeMott went two weeks ago, taking with him for his six-month stay the Bible and "The Book of Modern Verse." The others packed his things away in a brown paper bag; the house poet doesn't own much, just a few pairs of shorts and a slim packet of newspaper stories that mention his name. His crime was painting DEATH on the walls of the Pentagon, in violation of probation set after he drove a van into a Trident submarine.
Carl Kabat, the priest, John Schuchardt, the lawyer who once was a marine, and ex-priest Phil Berrigan, the founder and spiritual leader of the antimilitarist house, left for jail a week earlier, all sentenced to three to 10 years for beating the nose cone of a Mark-12 A nuclear missile with hammers at a General Electric weapons plant in Pennsylvania. Kabat, for one, said he had no problem getting locked up again. "I personally don't find jail all that unpalatable," he said before leaving. "It's a great milieu for cultivating an interior life."
Still, the absent ones are sorely missed by the others in the house and also much admired. "All the best ones are in jail," says James Cunningham, a onetime 1960s activist who is awaiting trail for throwing blood on the pillars of the White House and on a stack of federal income tax forms last April 15.
The three-story row house at 1933 Park Ave., meanwhile, has filled with visitors who share a commitment to nonviolent resistance focused mostly against nuclear weapons. Sunshine Appleby, a 37-year-old nurse from California, is there, preparing for the ordeal of her trip home, when she plans to break up with her boyfriend, an organic gardener who doesn't understand why she feels she has to go to jail.
Glen David, 20, who walked with 100 American Indians across the country in protest of uranium mining, came for dinner the other night, speaking of Phil Berrigan in tones of awe, referring to his house as a mecca. The meal was curry and apple pie, prepared by another visitor, Shyamali Tan, 40, an art teacher from India who chuckles over her idealistic youth, when she married a Chinese town planner in hopes the gesture would help bring peace between warring India and China. She and the town planner are separated; he does not share his wife's zeal for the resistance movement.
Anne Montgomery, a nun who teaches children in East Harlem, was also there. She dropped by at about the same time Kate Champa, a 40-year-old, Harvard-educated potter and mother of three, left for home in Rhode Island in a state of great agitation, more deeply concerned than over about the arms race, feeling guilty about her inherited wealth and her Ivy League degree, wondering whether her true place wasn't among the people at 1933 Park Ave.
The house has one new resident, Karl Smith, the affable, bespectacled 25-year-old son of a house painter, who says, "I've only spent 90 days in jail so far. I'm still a lighweight."
The more established members include Berrigan's wife, Liz McAlister, an ex-nun and art history teacher who is, at age 41, expecting their third child; their children, Frida, 7, and Jerry, 6; James Cunningham, 40, who was, not so long ago, a high-living lawyer with a house in Laguna Beach, Calif.; Marcia Timmel, 29, who wanted, until recently, to become a num; Mike Miles, 28, and his wife, Barbara Kass, 27, former Christian youth workers, and their baby Ollie. Ollie was born in the basement last Feb. 28, a date considered historically important in the movement, having fallen between the weeks of the Plowshares Trial. "To have children in these times embodies hope," Miles says.
On Ollie's face, there is a perpetual expression of wonderment. Miles, whose occupation is described in his high school class listing as "Resistance to the Arms Race," on the same page as an interior designer, an insurance investigator, an electric company manager and an NBC program analyst, acknowledges the look on Ollie's face with a laugh. "Who can blame her -- with what goes on this house?"
It is named Jonah House, after the man who went kicking and screaming into the belly of a whale. (The name is occasionally confusing to the cause-oriented; one woman wrote a letter about how moved she was by the work those at the house were doing. She had finally decided, she wrote, to become involved and so was enclosing a $10 contribution for "The Jonah House Campaign To Save The Whale.")
Jonah House was founded eight years ago by Berrigan, McAlister and six others. Berrigan, 57, included a chapter entitled "A Chronicle Of Hope, The Jonah House Resistance" in his book "Of Beasts and Beastly Images: Essays Under The Bomb." In it, he set forth the principles upon which he house was founded.
"That nonviolence, community and resistance was convertibles, i.e., they meant the same thing from different references;
"That contemplation -- prayer, meditation, reflection, analysis -- alone gave sustenance and spirit to resistance;
"That holding property in common -- one bank account, community transportation, no personal or health insurance -- was helpful for justice toward the poor and toward the earth;
"That the Judeo-Christian scripture was the vision for a society faithful to God and loving toward itself (at the same time, it was not obligatory to be a believing Jew or a believing Christian to join us)."
Resistance, Berrigan wrote, is to "evil . . . to the (Imperial) State and it wars -- conventional and nuclear."
"All you really have to know," Cunningham says, "is that there are 20,000 weapons -- 20,000 hydrogen bombs."
Cunningham learned of Jonah House from his friend Karl Smith in the spring of 1980. Both had returned to their homes in Eugene, Ore., after spending 60 days in prison for trespassing at a Trident submarine plant in Bangor, Wash. "I told Karl, 'We've got to get ourselves a community.'" Eugene, apparently, was not a good place to find one. "It's vegi-organic heaven out there -- a natural foods store on every corner," Cunningham says.
Smith suggested they look into Jonah House. "I said, 'Karl, what's the Jonah House?' He said, 'Do you remember Phil Berrigan?' I said, 'Do I remember Phil Berrigan! What a guy! I've been reading his books all summer."
Cunningham moved to Jonah House last summer; Smith joined him this summer. Another of Cunningham's friends from Eugene, who told him about the Bangor protest, has chosen a different path. "He's on a sailboat in Florida," says Cunningham, disappointed.
The one constant at Jonah House is that people are always coming and going. Only Berrigan and McAlister have stayed since the beginning; the others have gone on to other communities and life styles. Alumni include, besides those who remain active members of the peace movement, a hermit, a farmer, a gay rights activist and a radical feminist.
Barbara Kass says that some people come to the house looking for a hero in Phil Berrigan, and when, after living with this thoughtful, funny, handsome man who walks around the house barefoot, cracks jokes at meetings, makes terrific pancakes with granola and orange slices on Sundays, and earns his living with the others by painting houses in Baltimore, they find he does not want to be anyone's hero, they become disillusioned and leave.
There isn't any glamor in it anymore, either, and Cunningham, the former SDS member who occasionally slips into such '60s talk as "Hope is where you ass is," readily admits that his own fantasies of becoming a movement star -- wearing a beret and appearing on national TV -- became ridiculous fairly quickly.The establishment press, which once followed Berrigan's every move, largely ignores the movement nowadays; Johah 'house members, accordingly, don't notify the media of their actions.
There isn't even any of the secrecy and code talk that some once found exciting. McAlister says they tried, back in the days when Phil and his brother Dan (the Catholic priest and poet) were hiding from the FBI to use a complicated telephone code that involved adding and subtracting four nines from the numbers given, but it never worked because no one could remember how many nines to add and subtract. "We'll never be good CIA agents," she says.
Living at Jonah House isn't all marathon philosophical and religious discussions, study of the works of such writers as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and the Berrigan brothers, or blood-pourings and arrests at the White House and the Pentagon. Much time is spent in basic survival: Earing a living by painting houses in Baltimore at $6 or $7 an hour, scavenging food in the garbage dumpsters at the farm market in Jessup, Md., preparing meals, cleaning house, looking after the children.
There is, Jonah House people warn, a high degree of burnout in their movement. Louis DeBennedette, an ex-house member whose flair for dying at protests where dieins are staged is legendary, is mentioned as a man who has perhaps carried his concern too far. "Louis," says Peter DeMott, "is a man obsessed with the bomb."
DeMott, 34, an ex-marine who recited an Emily Dickinson poem at his Trident submarine trial "(Much madness is divinest sense . . . "), says he keeps his own sense of perspective and humor in part byu memorizing poetry. At Jonah House, humor tempers obsession. When Cunningham declared one night, "If my dying would end the arms race, I'd say, "Where do we show up?'" Timmel was quick to interrupt: "Where do you show up, James. Im new at this!"
Like everyone in the house, Timmel has a long tale to tell about the odyssey that led her to Jonah House. It began last December, when her thoughts turned to nuclear arms and nonviolent resistance. She was living at a convent in Akron, Ohio, counseling pregnant girls and preparing to become a nun. "By the beginning of Lent I had made up my mind that I was going to come to Washington and pour blood on the Pentagon. I tried to get some friends to come with me. They all said I was crazy. I didn't know where to get the blood. I called around to a bunch of blood banks. I said I needed blood for a science fair exhibit. No one had blood to go. I prayed. I said, 'Lord, I'm having all sorts of logistical problems. Open the door.'"
The door was opened in the form of a copy of Year One, the Jonah House newsletter, brought to the convent by one of the nuns. Timmel called the phone number listed under the logo. Liz McAlister answered the phone. She invited Timmel to join them in Washington for a week-long session at St. Stephen's Church. Timmel did, and she soon learned that the symbolic blood used in demonstrations comes, not from blood banks, but from the resister's own veins ("Make sure you don't throw it into the wind; it'll come back in your face," Cunningham tells the uninitiated.) She threw a pint of her blood on the pillars of the White House April 15 and was arrested for unlawful entry and depredation of government property, along with Cunningham, Miles and Smith. She left the convent in June, and now she sits in the living room at Jonah House, worrying about nuclear weapons. "We could all be killed right now, sitting here."
Her family lives in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. "They're not crazy about this development. Politically, they're Reaganites." Their reaction is not as extreme as that of Mike Miles' father, a former World War II bomber pilot in Japan. "He thinks we're nuts," Miles said. "He sent us this stinging, letter, just ripping up one side and down the other. He called us Communists and Socialists and said he wanted to take Ollie away from here." Or that of Karl Smith's older brother, an earth science teacher.Smith says, resigned, "He thinks I've fallen into some kind of cult."
Miles' wife, Barbara, says, "We don't want to be martyrs and idols. We just want to be be normal." The couple moved to Jonah House last fall from the hills of Kentucky, where they did missionary work among the poor. "I'd rather live in Kentucky," Barbara says. "If it weren't for the arms race, we'd move back in a minute. I just got a letter from an old woman who lives there. Someone stole her cow and her rubber hose. I feel bad; we were her only friends."
The original members of Jonah House chose Baltimore as a place to live because Berrigan was paroled there after he burned draft files in nearby Catonsville and because it was cheap. The house, which rents for $225 a month, is in a changing North Baltimore neighborhood, one that used to be a ghetto but is now being integrated by middle-class whites looking for old row houses to renovate.
The neighbors don't know what to make of the Jonah House people, a group of eight to 10 adults of all ages who go regularly and willingly off to jail. "They think we've weird," McAlister says, "But they like us."
The neighbors perhaps wonder about the peace action seven-year-old Frida Berrigan and her six-year-old brother Jerry staged at the house last year, flinging ashes from the fireplace and, instead of blood, water from a baby bottle. "We were protesting nuclear warfare," Jerry says. "If only we had handcuffs."
Jonah House feeds half the neighborhood each Tuesday, when its members return from the Maryland Farmers Produce Market in Jessup with a truck full of produce scavenged from the garbage dumpsters. One hungry man, perhaps confusing the Jonah House with a soup kitchen, recently rang the doorbell at midnight, requesting a tomato, a can of beans, an inion and a paper bag. Cunningham, who grew up poor in Brooklyn, obliged.
The front door of the house is usually open, and visitors enter through the living room, seeing first a sign that reads: "Illigitimus non carborandum." Don't let the bastards get you down. On the walls there are photographs of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Mahatma Gandhi; posters that say things like "The Spirit Is Where You Are -- Catonsville, Md." The furniture is secondhand and comfortable; the most expensive item in the house is a $750 film, "The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.
A photograph of the hydrogen bomb exploding hands on the wall of the second-floor bathroom. The bathroom adjoins John Schuchardt's room, where Schuchardt's FBI rap sheet, two pages long, hangs on the wall, testimony to a longtime practitioner of civil disobedience.
Also in Schuchardt's room is a worn copy of Webster's New Standard Dictionary. This is the house cash box, and anyone can open it to page 716 and check out the money that is kept there, noting the withdrawal on a pink card. The money that is earned from painting houses is pooled in one checking account, which usually has a balance between $2,000 and $5,000. There is no savings account. In the winter, there is no fuel bill. The house is heated with a wood stove from Vermont.
It costs less than than $200 a month to feed everyone in the house, along with frequent visitors. The produce from the market is supplemented with staples purchased for 9 cents a pound from the Baltimore Food Bank and, less frequently, from the A&P.A Baltimore doctor who is friendly with the Jonah House people provides free medical care. The house has two cars -- a 1970 Volvo and a 1970 Pinto station wagon -- one 1970 GMC pickup truck and one old, black, Schwinn three-speed bicycle that was donated by a defense lawyer.
A closet on the second floor holds all the props needed for a peace action: death specters and robes, banners, shovels for digging mock graves and symbolic gardens, megaphones for addressing crowds.
Jonah House members brought the "Neutron Bomb: Who Will Assume Moral Responsibility" banner, the megaphone, a few baby bottles filed with blood and a stack of leaflets to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on Aug. 9. It was the 36th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki. The protesters, who included Phil Berrigan's brother Jerry, a 62-year-old English professor, were solemn as they entered the museum shortly after 11 a.m.
Jerry Berrigan threw blood against the Minuteman III displayed in the Space Hall. Shyamali Tan bloodied the Cruise Missile. Karl Smith and several others fell on the floor of the museum, simulating death. An angry young marine stepped out of the crowd and stood over Smith, shouting obscenities. A boy asked his mother, "Is it a joke?"
"No, it's a protest," she said.
Mike Miles was ecstatic, seeing the blood on the Minuteman III. "This is a great action."
The guard who led Smith away seemed bored. "It's the same thing every year," he said.