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GET OUT AND GIVE BACK/Finding Peace at Joseph’s House

Jane Hess Collins
By Jane Hess Collins
Posted on Apr 10,2012
Filed Under News , Community,
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A Joseph’s House resident and one of the five pets. Photo courtesy of Joseph’s House.
A Joseph’s House resident and one of the five pets. Photo courtesy of Joseph’s House.

ALEXANDRIA, VA. - I have only one wish on my bucket list-to spend a month in Calcutta at Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying. To bathe and care for some of the world’s most forgotten, and to allow them to die with some semblance of dignity requires a courage and humility that I’m not sure I possess.

Then, I had the opportunity to spend time at Joseph’s House, a hospice for the homeless who are dying of AIDS and cancer, in Washington, DC.

The most difficult patients are sent here from prisons and other hospitals. Some are criminals, some are drug addicts, and many are angry. Some do not speak English or Spanish. Each of them is suffering, afraid and alone.

Strike! A Joseph's House resident scores at a bowling alley. Photo courtesy of Joseph's House.
Strike! A Joseph's House resident scores at
a bowling alley. Photo courtesy of Joseph's House.

“Healing is hard to put into words but it can only happen in a loving home,” explained executive director Patty Wudel. Healing, she said, means getting better, not getting well. While it is a huge victory for a Joseph’s House resident to say, “I am well” it does not mean they are cured.

“Love in humility can transform,” Patty continued in her tranquil, strong voice. Indeed, the ritual of death is one of community and grace. When a resident dies, the staff and remaining residents stay with the deceased, honoring the life and the body that housed it. Little is said. After a while the body is gently washed and dressed in new clothes. The sheets are changed. When the funeral home staff arrives, everyone accompanies the deceased to the waiting vehicle.

Patty invited me to spend an afternoon with them, just “being present with an open heart,” after I attended an orientation.

I was confused. What was I supposed to do? What did she mean, just “be”? Can I text? Write? But Patty, in her gentle way, didn’t budge. “Just be,” she smiled softly. “Just be with us.”

The day of my be-ing afternoon, I called Patty as I was leaving my house, already running at least a half-hour late. “We are very busy today,” Patty said. “If you can come at another time we would like that. But if you truly feel in your heart that you need to come over today, then I invite you to do so. Just have an open heart and an open mind.”

I was intrigued and a little perplexed. Why all the emphasis on an open heart and mind? Why were they so busy? Had someone passed away?

Most people would have taken Patty’s response as a plea to re-schedule. I did too but I was really, looking forward to this day, if only to experience four hours of be-ing.

One hour later (and one hour late) Patty met me at the door. She smiled her warm, compassionate smile as if I had arrived at exactly the right time.

Joseph’s House, not far from the Columbia Heights metro, is a large home built in 1919 with wooden floors, wooden beams on the ceiling and magnificent wooden doors that slide into the walls between the rooms. Pictures of President Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. greet you in the entryway, and appreciation plaques from a gay and lesbian organization hang above the coat rack. Photographs fill every bookshelf, wall and tabletop.

Every Joseph’s House resident in its 21-year history has her picture someplace, immortalized in this very special community. In some photos the residents mug and wear party hats. In others they are wrapped in bed sheets, looking scarily malnourished and weak. Pictures of Jesus appear in every room.

Each of Joseph's House's staff live compassion and dignity for those they serve. Photo courtesy of Joseph's House.
Each of Joseph's House's staff live compassion
and dignity for those they serve. Photo courtesy
of Joseph's House.

It was Monday, or “Mindful Monday” in Joseph’s House speak, and I arrived in time to watch an afternoon movie. I sat next to Rose Mary Dougherty, SSND, a fascinating nun who taught Zen meditation back in the day and was part of a delegation with Desmond Tutu in pre-apartheid South Africa.

Eight staff members and four residents joined us, two of whom were connected to oxygen machines. One guy, Mike, was perhaps the thinnest man I’ve ever seen. He shuffled into the room leaning heavily on a staff member then lay in a lounger, covered in blankets and barely able to move. He had gorgeous, brown wavy hair and all of his teeth were missing. He was so much younger than he looked.

We watched The Power of Forgiveness, a 78-minute documentary narrated by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Moore and Marianne Williamson as well those affected by Sinn Fein, 9-11, the 2006 Amish community massacre and other random violent murders.

The Oscars had been on TV the night before. Suddenly it seemed even more vapid than usual.

This documentary has been the Monday matinee of choice many times at Joseph’s House, Sister Dougherty told me. Each time she watches it, she said, she gleans something new.

The only sound in the room, aside from the movie, was the sound of the oxygen machines. The staff fetched snacks and water for the residents.

Afterward there was discussion, but it was nothing compared to the discussion that was about to begin. The community meeting was about to start and I was politely asked to sit outside of the group. I found a bench behind two residents. An oxygen machine was between them and directly in front of me.

A fifth resident, Jane, had joined the group and had something to say. “I will stay beside you,” Patty spoke softly as she sat to Jane’s left. “You say your piece then all of us who feel called to say something will speak from our hearts.”

Jane tearfully told her story. She had chosen to leave Joseph House for drugs. Through the oxygen machine buzzing, I heard “drugs…marshals…ego…house of ill repute….” Sobbing into a Kleenex, Jane said she returned to Joseph’s House because she had nowhere else to go, and now, she felt so undeserving.

I sat immobilized, feeling like an intruder and afraid any movement would break this sacred fragileness. Adjectives flooded my brain: honest, raw, intimate and authentic.

The air felt porcelain.

So many people had died in this room, on the couch where Patty, Jane and Sister Dougherty sat, yet the room seemed to scream with life.

It was time for the others to speak. Jane’s fellow residents were angry. The staff had been worried and was happy she had returned. As everyone spoke from their hearts, I also heard fear, shock, betrayal, disgust and love.

Priscilla, the senior nurse case manager, wondered aloud whether love was not enough to help a long-term addict.

Jane and a younger resident, one who had looked up to her for guidance, hugged for a long, long time.

The community meeting had come to an end. I was called back into the group. We all held hands. A volunteer stood to my left and I held Mike’s hand in my right.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.


We prayed the Lord’s Prayer. It was the only time that afternoon that Mike spoke.

I left, not sure I need to be in Calcutta.



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