i will be going back for the third time. here is a paper i wrote about my service there so far.
you may be wondering why the hell i’m going to CAMDEN, of all places. well…
DeSales Service Works is located in Camden, NJ, which is often ranked as the most dangerous and impoverished city in the country. There is no denying the great need that is here- there are frequent problems with crime, poor education, chronic homelessness, and the selling and using of narcotics. Camden is also a place of wonderful hope and faith. The combination of Camden’s needs and faith is what makes this city such an interesting and dynamic place to live and serve. During your time here, you will be immersed in the culture and experience of serving. Camden is over 40% Hispanic, mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Whether its attending Spanish Mass or serving the homeless, you’ll get to see the thriving side of Camden by living in our North Camden neighborhood.
Camden is a city rich in history. It is the home and resting place of poet Walt Whitman. The docks and shipyards along the Delaware River built many of the ships used to fight and win WWII. Many entertainers in the 30’s and 40’s, such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, used to perform in this city on Sundays when the laws forbade performing in the casinos of nearby Atlantic City. Being the home of Campbell’s Soup and RCA, Camden also has other claims to fame. The first television, phonograph, ball point pen, can of condensed soup and drive-in movie theatre were all created in Camden, NJ.
Unfortunately, Camden began to experience a significant economic decline after WWII. New York Shipbuilding, RCA and Campbell’s Soup all moved their manufacturing out of the city. Within a 30 year period, more then half the jobs in Camden disappeared. That led to significant population loss and declines in income, city services and the housing market. Race riots in the early seventies dramatically accelerated the process of ‘white flight’.
Camden has a population of around 80,000. It is only a small city. However, it has the problems that plague a metropolitan area ten times its size. Things to know:
·Camden is the poorest city of its size in our nation. It is the fifth poorest of all cities. The median family income is $23,421, well below the state average of $65,370.
·Approximately 60% of city residents are supported in some way by government assistance programs.
·About 40% of the population is under the age of 20. It is a city of children.
·33% of families live below the poverty line. 45% of families headed by a single mom (more then 4200 families) live below the poverty level.
·Two out of 5 homes (about 6,000 in total) in the city are vacant. Many are burned down or boarded up. (Many organizations are now making an effort to address this issue).
·Of an incoming high school freshman class, statistics suggest that 70% will drop out before graduating. Only 4% will go on to a four-year college or university and less than 1% will graduate.
·The violent crime rate in 2001 was 21.4 victims per 1000 residents compared with only 3.9 victims for the state.
·The teen birth rate was 61.9 per 1,000 girls in 2000. Compare this to the county rate of 22.5, and the state rate of 15. Camden’s infant mortality rate is more then twice the national average.
·According to the 2000 Census, 53% of the population identified themselves as African-American, 39% as Latino, 2.5% as Asian, and 17% as White.
i have always struggled finding a church community that i’ve been able to relate to and become a part of. my family has gone to a number of catholic churches but i’ve had such a hard time really seeing Jesus at the heart of the Catholic masses. the traditions and decorations and social teachings have really just taken away from the experience of mass which is supposed to be an experience of God.
anywhere near a metro station around washington, dc, you’ll find men and women selling Street Sense,” which offers “economic opportunities for people experiencing homelessness in our community through a newspaper that elevates voices and encourages debate on poverty and injustice.” anyway, there’s this man Tyrone who sells street sense outside the metro stop nearest to my house. every time i see him, he’s wearing a baseball cap that says “Jesus” and has a heart. and, every time, he smiles at me with a smile big enough to portray His heart and says, “you know you’re always in my prayers.”
and it’s not just me. he has this encounter with every single person who walks by him. he is truly living God’s love in the purest way. so one day i decided, this is a man who is worth getting to know. so i stopped. and we talked for probably an hour. by the end of the conversation, he had spoken the most beautiful words about the love of God, about his childhood, about his embracing church community. i asked which church he attended and he told me it was the one right there, only a few blocks from my house. he invited me to come that coming sunday.
and i did. when i walked in for the five o’clock service, tyrone’s eyes lit up and he greeted me with the greatest bear hug. then, i joined the community on their lenten series entitled “the road to Emmaus,” in which we look into the old testament in a different way than i ever had. we looked not for teachings on how to live our lives, or anything focused on us, for that matter. rather, we looked at what it really says about Jesus. and not just a foreshadowing of his coming—what does it really say about who Jesus is?
following the service, almost everyone in the congregation came up to me and welcomed me. i went out to dinner with a couple of the girls there who attend college in the area. they were so cool and in touch with their faith. because of the welcoming atmosphere and the loving message that was being preached, i knew i had to come back.
and i did. today, for the palm sunday service, continuing on the road to Emmaus. and everyone there remembered my name and who i was. for the first time, i feel like i really belong in a faith community, outside of my school. i really see God working through these people at Restoration Church. i am so thankful that Tyrone was able to lead me to them!
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 13: 34-35. Jesus says this is the greatest commandment. So I don’t understand how people who claim to be “Christian” can be hateful toward others, homophobic, or anything along those lines—that’s just hypocritical. To be Christian as Jesus intended, one must love all people, regardless of circumstance or differences or anything. Love because you share humanity.
open your eyes and observe everything. open your ears and listen to everyone. at night, listen to the silence. open your heart and leave it open. open your mind and think. then open your mouth and say what you will. - EJM.