Fishing People Out of the Dark: Father Joe Martin

Father Joe Martin (New York Times)

On the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, in Havre de Grace, Maryland, there unfolds a 147-acre estate that has held the last hope for thousands of alcoholics, addicts, and their families for over two decades.  Since 1984, the estate has housed a private drug and alcohol treatment facility called “Father Martin’s Ashley”, known to some as the “Betty Ford Clinic of the East,” helping over 40,000 addicts and alcoholics begin their recovery (Story on Father MartinNew York Times).  The treatment center was founded by a jocular, perpetually cheerful priest named Father Joe Martin, who was always known for having a smile and a joke for everyone he met.  Father Martin’s life work was his passion for healing the chemically addicted and for treating them with love and humanity.  Why did Father Martin care so passionately about alcoholics and their disease?  Because he suffered from it along with them.  (Picture of Father Martin NYT)


He Qi, “Calling Disciples,” Contemporary

In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus calls the first four Disciples to follow Him.  The brothers Simon and Andrew, James and John were going about their work as fishermen with their families.  In Jesus’ time, fishing was done at night so that the fish could be sold immediately in the morning before they went bad.  Although we romanticize the brave fishermen, fishing was actually a disreputable occupation – if an honest one – in Jesus’ time.  It took place at night, and left the participants wet, filthy and reeking of fish.  There were probably 1001 fisherman jokes circulating around Jewish Palestine.  The fact that Jesus was out at night, recruiting Disciples away from their families, did not exactly make him reputable either.  Jesus called Simon and Andrew, saying “Come with me, and I will make you fish for people.”  If the people that the Disciples would be fishing out of the dark smelled as objectionable as the fish, their calling probably would not be much of an improvement.

The addicts and alcoholics that have found themselves on the shores of the Chesapeake, washed up after years of addiction, have probably not appeared very reputable at the beginning of their recovery either.  I know because I was one (although I did not personally benefit from Father Martin’s Ashley).  Alcoholics – in spite of portrayals in movies like “Arthur” – are not fun or cute.  We are people whose bodies, minds and spirits have been submerged in a bottle for years, and for whom nothing else matters – family, friends or job – except where we will find our next drink.  Alcoholics can be extremely witty and winsome – when it comes to getting our way – and then turn on the people around us the moment they threaten to get between us and our bottles.

Father Martin himself was a “wounded healer”, struggling with the same disease that ravaged the people who came to his treatment center.  Ten years after he was ordained to the priesthood, Father Martin was requested by his superiors to enter the Guest House at Lake Orion, Michigan, an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recovery house for clergy.  At Guest House, Father Martin became a friend of Austin Ripley, its founder.  Ripley became the motivating force in his recovery, the day Ripley told Joe “Good things will happen in your life Joe Martin; you’ll do what Popes and Bishops cannot” (Eulogy for Father Martin).  In his own disreputable darkness, Father Martin was fished out, and called to become a fisher of people.  In his recovery, Father Martin would give a series of lectures on alcoholism that were later videotaped.  The “Chalk Talks” – as they were known – helped millions of alcoholics in the Armed Forces and around the globe.  It was in 1979, on an airplane ride, that the idea for Father Martin’s Ashley was born.  In the tribute video about him (see link), you can see highlights of Father Martin’s career and a glimpse of his radiant personality and passion for healing.

Several of the people that I knew in recovery had been to Father Martin’s Ashley.  One of the things they remembered most was that he would greet every alcoholic and addict personally as they came into the treatment center with “Welcome to Father Martin’s Ashley.  Your nightmare is over.”  They described it as a life-changing experience.  While the expert treatment, care and education of the alcoholic no doubt helped them, all the alcoholics I talked to remembered the love of Father Martin the most.  Although Father Martin passed away at age 84 in 2009, the memorials on the treatment center’s website give tribute to how this man helped heal thousands there: “It is with great sadness that I read in this morning’s News Journal of the passing of Father Martin.  I will always hold a place in my heart for this fine man of God and it is only because of him that I am able to email something like this.  I attended Ashley in 1998 and never looked back and was able to celebrate 10 years of continuous sobriety last year.  With the help of Father Martin and a loving God I was able to do what I could not do for myself” (Tribute to Father Martin).

When Jesus touched the lives of “the least of these” – four disreputable fishermen, toiling away in the dark – he saw something in them that was far greater than they could see.  It was not a calling that was socially approved, but it was a calling to a radically inclusive, healing Beloved Community, from which they would in turn call countless others who were also “the least of these”.  Father Martin’s life work, like the ministry of Jesus, called people out of their own darkness and called them to do the same for others.  May we be receptive to God’s call out of the darkness – and in turn to calling others whose lives need to be touched by God’s chesed (unconditional, Covenant-backed love).