Patrick's visit to the Joseph House provokes him to return to teaching changed.
Through baptism each child is inserted into a gathering of friends who never abandon him in life or in death because the companions are God’s family, which in itself bears the promise of eternity. - Pope Benedict XVI
“But Mr. Lambert, why doesn’t this exist in the real world?” For the past two years I have taught a high school course on Catholic Social Teaching and this question has haunted me on a daily basis. Facing the multifarious issues of our society, my students view the Church’s social teaching as yet another theoretical idea in the vast marketplace of ideologies which are all doomed to never exist in the real world. This latent concern of mine instantly disappeared the moment I walked into the Joseph House.
Joseph House is a community in Tallahassee started by Father Dustin Feddon that offers shelter, food, education, and most importantly friendship and community to men leaving prison. I found myself there because the parents of my friend Desa were visiting from Italy and he invited us for dinner to meet them and his friends who live at the Joseph House. So, after driving six hours to spend the week with friends in Miramar Beach, I instantly jumped on the opportunity to drive an extra two hours with some friends to spend the evening with Desa, his parents, and the guys at Joseph House.
While we were eating dinner together, one resident named Pre told us his story of ending up living at the Joseph House. After being incarcerated for twenty-two years, Pre found himself at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution: one of the worst of Florida’s prisons. He was distraught to spend the last period of his time in abject accommodations, cruelty, and loneliness. Sunlight began to break through those clouds when Pre’s cellmate said “The Pope is coming to visit today, don’t you want to go?” “The ‘Pope’? There’s no way that’s Father Dustin!” Pre thought to himself. Pre had befriended Father Dustin a few years before when visits from the chaplain were still not restricted due to Covid, and hadn’t seen him since. Just the possibility that “The Pope” visiting the prison might be Father Dustin filled Pre with a great hope that seemed almost too good to be true: “It’s hard to trust my own heart after all these years of people letting me down.” Yet, even considerably cautious, Pre said that he thought, “If that ‘Pope guy’ is Father Dustin, then I’m in this place (referring to the worst prison!) so that I can meet him again.” What a miracle to have this gaze on his life, to be certain despite all of the unfavorable circumstances that Someone always has him in mind.
All the moderation he had tried holding over his heart was thrown away the second the steel door opened and he saw Father Dustin waiting for him in the meeting room. Pre shared that he was filled with a flurry of questions at the sight of Father Dustin, the first of which was whether or not he had finally realized his dream of opening a house for former inmates. Together, they celebrated the fact that Father Dustin had opened Joseph House, caught up on each other’s lives, and made plans for the future. Knowing that he would be able to see Father Dustin and to have somewhere to go when he got out of prison made his last six months in prison livable.
Amidst the thousands of superficial differences between Pre’s story and my own I couldn’t help but realize that in the end we have experienced the same thing. In the Church I’ve met a companionship bigger than the scope of anything I could’ve imagined or created for myself. I, too, find it hard to trust my heart and the depths of my desire, but my friends enter into that darkness in the same way “Pope” Dustin entered the dingy meeting room of that prison. It is with gratitude and wonder for this friendship, this friendship that also includes Pre, that I can go back to my high school students and say with certainty that this life proposed by Christ is not a utopia, but is actually the most real thing.
Patrick, Tampa, FL