My specific job in the Oblates is to direct our service effort, De Sales Service Works (DSW). For over ten years DSW has invited people to do service in communities with economic hardship. Under the direction of Mark Plaushin (now at De Sales University) and the late Rick Wojnicki, DSW has invited guests to reflect on Salesian spirituality & Catholic social teaching and to bring that reflection to life in concrete service to the needy and poor.
One year ago, in August of 2008, the Oblates moved the program to Camden. Bishop Joseph Galante of Camden has given us the use of a great former rectory in an active immigrant neighborhood as the DSW guesthouse. Since we arrived one year ago, DSW has welcomed groups from high schools, parishes, colleges and universities to work, reflect, pray, and play. This fall we will host small group day retreats from two area Oblate high schools, a group of student leaders from De Sales University, and three groups returning after coming here last spring. This spring the other area Oblate high school and our school in Florida will have service retreats here, along with more parish and college groups. In addition, next year we hope to welcome year-long residential volunteers to the program.
It is difficult to convey the richness of the experience in writing. The list that follows attempts to give an impression of our experience:
Young guys down the block exchanging drugs in their tight fist for folded bills from someone else’s fist.
Young and old, Latino, white, black, affluent, poor, men, women buying drugs.
People drunk or high, people with vacant eyes, sleeping all day, falling over, talking to you—but not really there, personalities clouded over by a toxic fog.
People living outside, sleeping in doorways, sleeping on cardboard,
washing up with water in a paper cup,
People with nowhere to stay, no place for their stuff, no one to call on.
Young parents loud and harsh with their small children.
People with obvious mental illness—loose with no one to connect with them. Depression is very apparent, and low self-esteem
People “on the make” saying whatever they need to, people who just need $1.45 to get out of Camden.
People dropping trash anywhere, graffiti, half finished jobs,
overgrown backyards, trash.
Tough faces and eyes. Tough talk.
New Americans in small, old houses that they have made home,
where they welcome us in.
Communities sharing abundant food from their old country.
People proud to be American and Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Chilean, or Salvadoran.
People doing an amazing job speaking English when they learned to think in Spanish.
My list means to give snap shots of our experience of this community; poverty is only part of the picture. There is so much more going on than meets the eye. People often laugh and tell stories. So many people express their gratitude for whatever we do. Even when we say “no” to a request, most often, people understand. People are generous in offering hospitality and sharing delicious food. Every scene is complicated and every person involved has a story with origins, motivations and dimensions. There is more to people and lives than meets the eye.
Two of our homeless neighbors are a couple who go by the names Ken and Barbie. Over time we have gotten to know them not as an odd couple, living on the street, making daily rounds of Camden’s two soup kitchens and our own sandwich ministry, charging their phone at our outdoor plug, bickering and bantering, dealing with health issues, each with a history. We have gotten to know them and their stories and have encouraged them to make progress while at the same time enjoying them and their goodness.
Another vivid example is one nearby drug house with lots of teenaged kids. We enlisted the mom and some of the kids to work with DSW volunteers to clean up the parish school playground and to paint over the graffiti-covered cinderblock wall that surrounds the playground. This was part of upgrading the school environment and preparing for a block party. Though drug sales clearly continue, we nevertheless reached across a significant divide and did a small thing well.
Evaluating at the one-year mark, one thing is very clear. We Oblates, and the DSW volunteers who have come to reflect and serve, sometimes look at the situation—all the issues—and want to solve the problem. Hunger, homelessness, addiction, mental illness are like open wounds, and we want to dial 9-1-1, code blue, call in the cavalry: these conditions are unacceptable.
After a year I can say we may not have solved many problems. However we have joined with DSW visitors and other community members here doing small things, while working with efforts for larger solutions. Francis de Sales teaches us that small things matter. “Nothing is small in the service of God,” he tells us. So we give out sandwiches from our side door. We have cool water available at all times. We talk to our neighbors resting on their cardboard “mattresses.” We make it our mission to treat everyone with dignity and respect. We have worked on our parish grade school. We have reached out to new Americans and have been guests in neighborhood homes. While these conditions really are unacceptable and it is a code blue emergency, it is also important to meet people where they are and to bring whatever good we can to the present moment. We have tried to be part of people’s lives, part of this community.
Tim Gallagher’s blog entry (August 19, 2009) about his three weeks in Camden this summer presents Sr. Claire Sullivan, IHM, as a vivid illustration of a very Salesian approach. Her fearless presence in the community shows the power and value of the little virtues that De Sales promotes. She has taught us so much about being here, being with people. I can also say that Tim and all the other volunteers who have come —college students, high school students, and parishioners— inspire and also show the power of generosity, service, and respect. Again, these are small things, but things that make a difference—one person at a time. There is real truth to the observation that life is a mystery to be reverenced rather than a problem to be solved. So we are here to put Salesian values in practice—reverencing our least sisters and brothers, and at the same time we work as we can for God’s reign of justice and peace.