Subject: Update from Camden
I just wanted to shoot everyone an email and give a little update on how things are going in Camden. We are now into our 7th month and things are really going well (not for the city government but for all of us here at DeSales Service Works). I want to share a few experiences with you and then offer an invitation or two.
As most of you know I work for Guadalupe Family Services as a Community Outreach Worker and while I am not a social worker my job is similar. I am to educate, assist, and support the local community in as many ways as possible and I love every minute of it. Most of you have heard, Camden has been in some real fiscal trouble and had to make some serious decisions about the cops and firefighters in the city. When I first heard that Mayor Reed was thinking of cutting half the police force and 1/3 of the fire department, I think I had the reaction of most people…”is she serious, she must be crazy!” Camden has been ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in America and we want to cut the public safety? I was not thrilled and I was down right scared about what might happen.
The same week that the deadline was approaching Camden Churches Organized for People (http://www.camdenchurches.org) was holding their yearly event, Christian Unity Week. The event brings the faithful of Camden together to organize for peace and to praise God. My house-mates and I attended and were accompanied by the JVCs (Jesuit Volunteers who live around the corner from us in Camden). The first night it was hosted at St. Anthony of Padua’s Catholic Church. The program was apparently set from year to year: opening songs of praise, a special presentation from the parish (song, liturgical dance, Gospel Choir…etc.) and then a sermon from the pastor followed by prayers of petition and finally fellowship afterward in the parish hall. Fr. Jud of St. Anthony’s give his sermon on revitalization. He spoke of, as so many people do, the way Camden was back in the 1950s and how prosperous it was but he told of how we can’t just simply jump back to the 1950s to fix things. Sure the 1950s were a bit less violent in Camden and there were more jobs but there was also racial tension and the jobs were dangerous and low paying. He spoke of how he didn’t want to simply return to those “good times” but rather he wanted to revitalize Camden into something greater than the Camden of the 1950s. I can honestly say it was the only time I had really thought of it that way. So often when we look back on events we have selective memory and we don’t want to recognize the wholeness of the events but rather want to pick and choose. Fr. Jud called us to look at how we can make God known in this city and how to revitalize Camden into a city that is even better than it was in the 50s.
The following night we traveled to Bethel Deliverance Church and experience a predominately Black Church. There was Gospel music and animated preaching and I LOVED EVERY MINUTE. It was exactly what Sister Helen and I needed because it was the end of one of the worst days in recent Camden history: the layoffs. At 9am that morning Sister Helen and I met Lourdes (our coworker) as we went with her brother (a Camden cop who was being laid off after 10 years on the force and an undercover narcotics detective) to meet at the FOP hall where all the PD and FD members were meeting before turning in their equipment. It was a nasty day with snow and freezing rain (even God was pissed about the layoffs) but all the men and women met there to stand together and support one another. Sister Helen and I joined them as they walked from FOP HQ down the street and laid their boots along the side of the road signifying how many officers were being let go. Following that we walked with the Fire Fighters through the streets of downtown Camden and past city hall shouting for the Mayor to hear us and hear the pleas of the people of Camden, but not even a glance from a window was given. When we reached Fire HQ two lines were formed in the driveway as a symbolic honor guard and one by one the men and women laid down their helmets, jackets and boots. To see such strong men and women hurting so bad and crying on each other’s shoulders was something I will never forget. There was anger and fear in their voices but no one to hear them. At the press conference that followed Sister Helen and I along with members of the unions were refused entrance to the meeting. It was as if Mayor Redd were turning her back on the people of Camden. That day was truly sad and unsettling.
In the days following the lay offs, the drug dealers walked a little taller and were a bit more open about their business but thankfully crime didn’t seem to rise too much and the gunshots remained few.
While there are hundreds of homeless on any given night in Camden, there are few if any overnight shelters. There are shelters for battered women and emergency “Code Blue” shelters but no place for the homeless to go on a nightly basis to get out of the cold and sleep somewhere dry. With this in mind, a group of people including Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, (DSW director) got together and worked extremely hard for over a year to get something together. It finally came together and Joseph’s House (http://www.josephshouseofcamden.org/) opened one week ago. Our community and the JVCs have committed to working two nights a week as volunteers. Our primary tasks are helping with beverages and just being present with the patrons. Last night was my first night, and it was AMAZING. I must make a confession and say that while I am very comfortable in Camden and working here, I always became a bit uncomfortable when going to the day shelter. I was always feeling awkward or that I was invading someone’s space by trying to talk to them but last night changed all of that.
I was on cooking ministry, and I was in charge of the soup and mac ‘n cheese. It was a simple meal but it was warm. The 40 patrons filled in around 9:30 and immediately were looking for something hot. We gave them a nice helping of soup and told them the mac ‘n cheese would be out in a little bit because it was still warming. While I was expecting people to be upset when it wasn’t ready, everyone calmly accepted it and told me, “Okay, brother man, thank you very much… God bless you!” Not one person complained and everyone looked out for one another making sure that no one had seconds before all had had their firsts. One man was really hungry and kept coming up asking for more, and I gladly gave him as much as I could, but at one point I had to cut him off so that I could have some for the others and again he accepted and just went back and enjoyed his coffee. Finally I was able to call him back up and give him the final serving, but his first concern was for me … “aren’t you going to have some?… you’re sure? I don’t want to get you in trouble. I really appreciate it, brother…” and with that he reached out his hand and said “thank you all for giving your time here; we really appreciate it.”
I couldn’t help but feel that this was the message of the Gospel, break down your walls and fears and meet each other where you are and treat one another with love, true love! I could write a whole theological summary here but that would only be fun for a few on this list… I will spare you! Just know that it was a truly amazing experience, and I hope that all of you are able to do it at some point. I can’t wait to go back next week.
I close with two invitations. The first is another invitation to come and see what it is like here in Camden. Come and see the extraordinary things that happen in this ordinary city. Some of you have already taken me up on this invitation and many commented that it was an amazing experience and you can’t wait to come back… I loved hearing that! Others are still searching for a good time to come down. I welcome you at any time (day, weekend, week long, month long…etc.)
*****The second invitation is one to our fundraiser for Guadalupe Family Services. This is the agency that I currently work for as a year-long volunteer and they have asked me to stay on as a full-time paid employee next year! I was extremely honored to be given this opportunity of continuing my work here in Camden. While I am grateful for the opportunity I know that hiring me full time will put a financial burden on our non-profit agency. With that in mind, I ask for your presence and support at our fundraiser. Your support allows me to continue this good work I have started here and allows me to serve those most in need. The event “crossing the river for a cause” is at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia on May 19th. We will have dinner, dancing, silent auction and best of all… an open bar! (well not for me but you all can enjoy, I will be working the event) I will be sending out formal invitations to those interested but it would mean a great deal to me to have each of you there. I understand with the economy being what it is, that it is sometime hard to give to a charity but I know you will all try to support just as you have in the past!
Thanks to all of you for reading this long email! But most importantly thank you for always being there for me and always loving and supporting me in whatever way you can. I look forward to hearing from/ seeing you soon.
Peace and Love
PS: The embedded pictures are:
1. Me sitting on the porch eating the homemade soup we served to the homeless on MLK day. My house mate Tom and I were trying to connect with the feeling of being cold and homeless by eating ours outside.
2. My house mates Tom and Mike preparing dinner
3. The DSW (DeSales Service Workers) and the JVs (Jesuit Volunteers) in our Chapel at the beginning of our year.
4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVnHCKlGkh0 a sample of Christian Unity Week at Bethel Deliverance Church
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