WELCOME TO UNALASKA. FREE COFFEE DONUTS.
John Honan’s in the school bus next to the bridge again, its black on white on yellow greeting lit up in the fog lamps of the ramshackle cars blearily gazing through the dim mist of another Alaskan morning. Likely as not there’s someone in there with him — maybe one of his congregants from Unalaska Christian Fellowship, maybe Denise and her grandson Billy stopping in for a smile and a pastry, maybe a young first-time fisherman up from Seattle using it as the makeshift visitor center it’s meant to be.
Maybe their conversation will be about God. Maybe it won’t be. Regardless, at the end, John will ask them if he can pray for their day and send them off with a blessing. Likely as not, they’ll happily take him up on the offer — and they’ll go back off into the wind and snow caffeinated, body and soul.
I asked him once why he did the bus thing — it wasn’t directly related to any of the three nonprofits he operated, obviously didn’t raise any money, and took up a decent chunk of his mornings.
“I went to this healing conference once, Christian, and the speaker said something I thought was pretty canny. ‘If you want to heal — truly heal, body and spirit — you’ve got to be available, bold, and compassionate.’ The ABC’s of the trade. That’s how you heal.”
John turned to me. “I don’t know if that’s how you heal,” he said humbly. “But it’s certainly how you help people.”
Forty-odd years ago, John Honan wasn’t getting up at odd hours of the morning to pray with the stranded folks he puts up for the night over on the other side of the duplex he and his wife Sue live in. He wasn’t waiting long hours at the airport to see if he could deliver Christmas turkeys (and presents) to the needy community of St. George — an island in the middle of the Bering Sea two hundred miles northwest of the already remote Unalaska Island. He wasn’t doing the bus thing. No, John was living under an Interstate 405 underpass in Los Angeles. He’d been living by the skin of his teeth — enjoying life, but going from odd job to odd job, random town to random town. When his scheme to go buy some land in Canada fell apart, he found himself in L.A., desperate and hungry, with no real plan except to get out of his present circumstances.
Eventually he summoned up the boldness (the first of the ministerial ABC’s he’d acquire) to ask the youth group kids who were providing him with the one peanut butter sandwich a day he’d been subsisting on if there was somewhere he could go and get cleaned up and try to find a job. They pointed him toward a Bible study.
It was there he learned, for the first time, that God had a plan for him. John had grown up Catholic — but in that insubstantial way it seems many people brought up Catholic are — and the news that God had a plan stunned him. What was it? How did he find out what it was? And then what? Back under the 405 that night he heard a voice amongst the rumblings of the cars above him:
“John, if you want the plan God has for you, you have to ask Jesus into your life. Love Me, and serve Me.”
Not given any directive beyond love and serve, wherever John went he loved and served. In Oregon, where he met his wife Sue: love and serve. When he moved to Alaska to join his brothers who were profiting handsomely on the crabbing boom of the mid-nineties: love and serve. As he grew with God, he read the Gospel and learned what Jesus meant by “love” and “serve”.
“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat… I was in prison and you came and visited me…
Whatever you did for the one of the least of these, you did for me.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Available, bold, compassionate. That’s how John found himself in a school bus on weekday mornings giving out free coffee and listening, listening, and listening. Trying his best to understand, learn, and love.
* * *
Karol Wojtyła, prior to becoming Pope John Paul II, published the seminal Love & Responsibility in 1960. Love & Responsibility is an unabashed philosophical defense of the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage but is perhaps most insightful when it directly links the fundamental claim that every human deserves to be loved and not used as an object with a rigorous description of what it means to respect another’s dignity. Love, as Wojtyła tells it, requires an individual to willfully “seek a good together with others, and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others, or to others for the sake of that good.” In other words, he must put some greater good ahead of his own personal good.
Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, stated that humans “need something for the sake of which to live” and that man’s purpose is to find meaning in life. If true, it would follow, from both a Biblical and secular perspective, that man is most likely to find fulfillment in the act of loving. Wojtyła and Frankl found themselves realizing the criticality of love to human fulfillment (and simply keeping one’s head above water) in the whirlwind horror of World War II. John Honan found it while homeless and desperate under the 405 underpass.
If our trio is correct — that not only being loved but also actually loving is critical to finding that elusive feeling of fulfillment — such a claim demands a societal paradigm shift not just in how we go about attempting to find our own happiness, but also in how we ought to arrange our society itself. Governments, philanthropic institutions, health professionals, etc., should not be supplanting individuals’ ability to love: feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, befriend the stranger. They should be facilitating and encouraging individuals to do this themselves, thus allowing for people to not just be loved, but to love others themselves. The moment citizenship becomes synonymous with love, it’s possible to envision a society in which the John Honans of the world, complete with their availability, boldness, compassion, and willingness to sit in a frigid bus to try and effect the good of their neighbors are no longer the exception, but the norm.
The question, then, is how.
* * *
How to — yes — love.
An ex-girlfriend once told me that it should be intuitive. Preprogrammed. Her thesis was that if you try to love, then there should be something inherent inside you that will allow you to do so successfully.
Maybe so. But in the end (not metaphorically, sadly — she was an ex-girlfriend), why not know more? While intending to do good is unmistakably admirable, imagine how much good can be done if you actually know how to do it. While there is no doubt value in what manifests organically, it is much easier to succeed in doing the right thing if you know how. Gambling on trial and error is just that — a gamble.
So yes. How to love.
Love as citizenship is fairly unexplored. Citizenship, especially in an American context, consists mainly of voting, jury duty, paying taxes, and keeping off of everyone else’s grass. “Good fences make good neighbors,” NIMBYism (“not in my backyard”), grocery store self-checkouts, and the iconic garage door have become the trademarks of American “neighborliness.”
Luckily, Americans haven’t yet gotten around to applying the same principles they apply to their neighbors to their spouses. For us, it’s not only lucky — it’s convenient. While neighbor counseling (it even sounds absurd) isn’t really a thing, marriage counseling is widespread, as are books about how to start, conduct, or repair marriages. Books like… Karol Wojtyła’s Love & Responsibility, which he was inspired to write after his interactions with all too many floundering young couples made him decide it might be worth clarifying precisely what it means to love.
To love one’s spouse, specifically. Happily, for our purposes, knowing how to love one’s spouse provides us a parallel methodology for how to love one’s neighbor. A good neighbor is a good member of his community. A good husband is a good member of his marriage, which is a community in its own right. Both good neighbors and good husbands are good citizens — the latter’s community is simply smaller and takes precedence over the former.
Wojtyła’s prescription for loving well within marriage requires its participants to engage in two forms of love — friendship and betrothal. Both friendship and betrothal are founded on what Wojtyła calls “love as goodwill”. Goodwill means desiring not merely one’s own good but the good of the other. Not “I long for you as a good,” but “I long for that which is good for you.” Neither true friendships nor marriages can be relationships “of utility.” While both participants no doubt stand to gain, their gain is not why they participate — it is the gain of the other person in the relationship that motivates them to stay. Placing someone else’s needs before yours, as both Viktor Frankl and John Honan so strongly emphasize, is what provides fulfillment.
Of course, it is not enough to simply intend the good of the other. Work must be done to actually get to know them and what they consider to be their own good as well. This takes, among other things, time. Given time, it is then possible for one friend to develop Wojtłyan “sympathy”— the emotional recognition of the worth of the other person. Like most emotional things, it takes time to grow and flourish. Once it has, though, sympathy is sticky, and thus useful. If one person is temporarily being, for lack of a better word, difficult, sympathy allows for their friend, spouse, etc. to maintain the necessary goodwill to preserve the relationship. Two peoples’ willingness (emphasis on will) to stick with their friend through the storms of life is indicative of true friendship. They are, after all, loving their neighbor.
It is only possible to elevate a friendship to a marriage, however, if both friends are willing to betroth themselves to their partner. Betrothal, as Wojtyła explains, requires more than simple goodwill. It requires complete self-surrender — the total giving of oneself to another to do with as they please. Such total surrender, of course, can only be accomplished if one spouse trusts that their partner truly loves them — i.e., fully wills their good. If that trust isn’t there, such total surrender opens wide the doors for the most emotionally devastating form of exploitation: betrayal. As such, it is only through this mutual trust and absolute commitment of the will that two people can truly act as one, on the bona fide behalf of each of their constituent parts.
Wojtyła clearly explains that total surrender of oneself to another, given the inseparable nature of human body and soul, is fundamentally a sexual act. I don’t disagree. However, it does seem like there are other forms of “betrothal.” Jesus on the Cross comes to mind. Or, what about cases where a person doesn’t totally surrender themselves but surrenders… partially? With conditions, perhaps. What of the relationship between parent and child? Or — perhaps more keenly — between parent and adopted child? Or between mentor and mentee? Master and apprentice? Or, why not, what about best friends?
After all, Jesus asks us not only to love our spouses as ourselves, but all of our neighbors as well. A marital relationship is, of course, special unto itself, but describing a marriage as the only form of betrothed love can undersell other lesser but still extremely necessary forms of conditional betrothal.
* * *
Sue Honan, John’s wife and ever-patient Eleanor Roosevelt to his FDR, said as much to me in our conversation about the Honans’ various community-enhancing exploits. Being a good citizen and a good spouse both require copious amounts of patience, kindness, and self-sacrifice. However, you only make inviolate vows to your spouse.
“There are times,” Sue said wisely, thinking back on all her years of marriage, “where you’re not staying in the relationship because of the other person. It’s because you made a covenant with God.” She continued. “Even when it’s rough, I know that John will treat me with goodwill. I don’t necessarily know that for everyone else. There are some men out there who seem great, but at home are horrible people. In a marriage you know fully. Out in society, less so.”
John’s more willing to take society’s slings and arrows on the chin, but even he has limits with those he takes care of that he doesn’t with his wife. “Each time someone comes to me in need of a place to sleep, help getting a job, whatever, I tell them up front that if they treat me with respect, then I’ll do everything in my power to help them,” he says. “But if they act like the devil, then I’ll have to throw them out.” He quotes Luke’s Gospel: “If a town refuses to recognize you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate!’”
The Honans embody a spirit of conditional but committed love for their community. A sort of “betrothal-lite.” They don’t commit themselves to unbinding vows, per se, but it is their word they are giving nonetheless. It’s this ironclad commitment, underwritten by their dedication to God, that allows for other folks in Unalaska to trust the Honans — loan them buses to use as early morning visitor centers, fund their shelter ministry, and come to them for anything and everything. Because the Honans love, and do so with such vitality, they encourage other people to do the same. Betrothed love, after all, allows for the other side to give just as much since it’s now clear that betrayal won’t be right around the corner.
It’s the strength of their love that brought me to Unalaska for a third time — not just to intern in the City’s Planning Department or to make another attempt to summit the island’s resident dormant volcano, but to try and understand precisely how a society could encourage in everyone the same sort of contagious love — citizenship, really — that the Honans pour out on such a regular basis.
* * *
We know three things about the kind of love worth encouraging in citizens. Firstly, it requires an act of the will — it cannot be purely sentimental. Secondly, it must be primarily concerned with the good of the person being loved. And thirdly, it must be trustworthy. If a citizen cannot be relied on to love — well, Paul said it best in his first epistle to the Corinthians. “If I give all I possess to the poor, and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love…”
The siblings that brought John Honan to Unalaska have all come and gone. Crabbing, after the imposition of the individual transferable quota system, became much less lucrative (and much less dangerous), so the Honan brothers moved back to the Lower 48. Less windy, less isolated.
John stayed. Stayed for the youth ministry. Stayed for his congregation. He and his wife aren’t as spry as they used to be, though, and Unalaska is a tough place to live; everyone from the newcomer to native Unangan folks who’ve lived their whole lives on that rock in the ocean say as much. So life on the island gets harder. Nevertheless, John won’t leave until he’s certain that his stranded ministry will be there even when he’s not.
“The poor you will always have with you,” he says, quoting Jesus as recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew. Then, tongue-in-cheek, he wryly finishes the Lord’s exhortation: “But you will not always have me.’
“More seriously, though, Christian — I won’t always be around, but God’s love always will be. I’ve promised this community I’ll try and see it through, but unless there are people willing to take the baton, the suffering will only get worse.”
He’s right. Unalaska relies on John and Sue. Beyond their ministry literally providing overflow capacity for the local jail, it is only investments like theirs that allow the town to keep ticking as successfully as it does. Without their enduring, vivacious commitment and its unshakeable foundation in God; without their keen understanding of both the town, its people, its ailments and their willingness to continuously understand more; without their desire to put themselves in occasionally uncomfortable circumstances for the good of their neighbors… where would Unalaska be?
Without people like John and Sue, where would humankind be? Good citizens — not just people who always show up to vote and pay taxes, but citizens who truly love — are what keep the emotional gears of society turning. The more good citizens we have, the better society becomes. The more we love — not just “be kind”, but truly care about the good of our fellow man — the better the world becomes. Commit to being available, bold, and compassionate. Love your neighbor as you would have your neighbor love you.
* * *
“Good fences make good neighbors” first appears in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” a poem nominally about two reticent neighbors working to fix the stone wall between their two properties.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones on his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head.
Why do they make good neighbors?
Let spring be the mischief in you.
Thank you Christian for this very kind and thoughtful article. Come see us again! Love, Sue Honan
[…] “Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall: Love and Citizenship.” Christian Schmidt ponders the life and love of a couple who live on Unalaska Island. What makes them such good neighbors? “Available, bold, compassionate. That’s how John found himself in a school bus on weekday mornings giving out free coffee and listening, listening, and listening. Trying his best to understand, learn, and love.” […]