JoAnn Sharpe's Curious Letters of Condolence Aim to Move Survivors from Grief to God
After rising at around 6:30, she sends her 12-year-old daughter, Brittany, down to the corner store at Patterson Park Avenue and Madison Street to buy a copy of The Sun. When Brittany returns, Sharpe tosses aside news of Iraq, the Orioles, and Eminem to get to the real dirt--notices of those whose time on this mortal coil has recently expired. Sharpe then examines each death notice for its utility: Will it have a home address for the deceased's family, as well as a ZIP code? She checks off the ones that do, then gets down to work amid old furniture, kiddie walkers, playpens, old play stoves, and scattered plastic toys.
A large woman who tends daily to as many as eight neighborhood children at her home on a crumbling block of North Patterson Park Avenue, Sharpe, 41, spends most mornings indulging her passion: penning epistles to the bereaved. She says she has composed well over 1,000 letters to families of dear and recently departed Baltimoreans since she began her condolence campaign in January 2000. She writes to stranger, both to help them overcome their grief and to introduce many of them to the word of Jehovah.
"I write for two to three hours every day and get done anywhere from five to eight letters," says Sharpe, an outgoing, at times effusive woman. "I buy three packs of stamps at a time, a large box of envelopes, and a packet of paper every week. Then, I get going. By the time I get done, my hand will be aching. I always thank Jehovah for letting me finish before my hand gets too tired."
There's no copy machine, computer, or printer in Sharpe's rowhouse. She endures writers' cramp, she says, because of genuine concern for those who are suffering from the death of a loved one. "I was reading the Sun paper and as always the obituary section makes me so sad because I too have lost so many love [sic] ones in death," she wrote to the family of Rosa Patoka in January 2000. But the next line gives readers the first sign that the author's agenda may be multifaceted: "It's because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve that we grow old, get sick, and die." Quotes from Corinthians, Revelations, and the Book of John back up the notion that Sharpe may be attempting to fulfill part of her mission to enter the kingdom of Heaven by converting the heathens. The small Jehovah's Witness pamphlet on the subject of death folded inside the letter clinches it. Still, she says that comforting the aggrieved is her main goal. "If I can let people know that there's hope for a resurrection, and that they can see their loved one again when the new order comes, then I feel I've done some good."
Sharpe came by her faith almost organically, she says. Born and raised a Jehovah's Witness in a rough-and-tumble West Baltimore neighborhood near Pennsylvania Avenue (where she still attends church on Sunday), Sharpe graduated from Carver Voc-Tech High School, became a practical nurse, and eventually opened her house up as a day-care center after Brittany was born. "When she was a baby, Brittany was sick one day and needed to go to the hospital, and my boss told me I couldn't leave my nursing job," says Sharpe. "That was that. I needed to be with my baby."
In addition to being housebound by her day-care duties, Sharpe found herself shut in by her chronic asthma, which gets particularly bad in the winter. She had made a commitment to Jehovah to work 70 hours for the church as a "pioneer," another word for proselytizer. She knew she couldn't go door-to-door with The Watchtower in hand, as many Witnesses do when spreading the gospel. She says she never even considered doing what Witnesses call "phone ministry."
Because she always liked to write--"I'm always writing crazy notes to my girlfriends, just goofing around, acting simple," she says--Sharpe decided to use her pen to reach those in pain. Over and over again, at about an hour per letter, which usually runs three to four pages. Although her letters have the same form, she says she works to make sure they're not all the same. "I switch up," she says. "I have a layout, or--what do you call it?--an outline, but I don't just go by it. I switch it up."
Getting started wasn't all that easy, but not because of writer's block. Sharpe says sending letters to people she doesn't know at a time of extreme emotional vulnerability gave her pause, if only temporarily. "At first, I was a little worried about doing it," she says. "I thought people might get upset about it. But then I started to get all these thank-you notes from people. I was like, 'Oh, wow!'"
The dozens of notes Sharpe has saved run the gamut from the generic-but-heartfelt ("Our sincere appreciation for the kind words you wrote to us") to the weird. One writer apparently misidentified Sharpe as a friend or aide to the deceased ("Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness during this very difficult time and for all of your help with Jack"). Still another note writer either thought Sharpe was someone else, or was extremely grateful for her letter ("Our sincere appreciation for the kind words you wrote to us. You will always be a dear friend to me"). Sharpe has no doubts how to interpret that last note. "When I got that, I was like, 'She doesn't even know me, but she considers me a dear friend for writing.' Getting notes like that makes me want to write more," she says.
Although a family of any denomination may choose to receive visitors at the home of the deceased, the custom is most regularly practiced by members of the Jewish and Asian communities. Sharpe seems surprised to hear this. She insists she isn't targeting members of any particular religion with her letters of condolence and possible conversion. "It doesn't matter to me whether these people are Buddhist or Protestant or whatever," she says. "If I think a letter will help, I'll write it."
Israel Patoka, director of Mayor O'Malley's Office of Neighborhoods, received letters from Sharpe after his mother died and again two years later when his father, Wolf, passed away in January. He says Sharpe's words were well received by his family. "Until it happens to you and you lose someone close in your family, you never realize how much each kind word means to you," Patoka says. Although he's Jewish, he says he wasn't offended by the letters' pro-Witness message. "I'm comfortable enough in my own faith that it was easy for me to downplay the conversion aspect and see the letter as comforting," he says.
Sharpe doesn't mind if the religious message isn't heard--although, of course, she'd prefer that it were. She makes sure that each letter gets a pamphlet, "so that everyone can see that everything I write comes straight from the Bible. They're not my words. They're Jehovah's."
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