Today is our last full day of service. We will be heading home Sunday night and returning to our normal routines. As our time of service winds down, I think back to all the wonderful moments we have shared. Yesterday for our evening reflection, I asked my fellow interns to make a collage of our time in Camden. My creation contains words and images that represent all of my experiences during my stay at the DSW house. One of my favorite memories was visiting New York. We saw the exhibits in the New York Public Library in Manhattan, the 9/ll Memorial, and spent time in prayer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Another fun memory was going to Philly for the Hispanic festival and the screening of the The Dark Night Rises at Penn’s Landing. We also went to the Camden Waterfront for the Caribbean Festival and Jazz Concerts and to a Riversharks game at Campbell’s Stadium. I also included a section dedicated to the undocumented individuals I interviewed for my second blog and to the families that have shown us so much love. If you’re wondering about the picture of the cat, it represents Cesar, a kitten that has made the DSW house his home. All in all, it’s been a blast!
What does it mean to be Christian? I asked myself this question today. Over and over it came up in my thoughts. It’s a question every follower of Christ should ask once in a while because it’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day routines without thinking about if what we are doing is pleasing to God. I think of St. Francis De Sales who said (and I’m paraphrasing) that it is okay if the work you do consumes a lot of your day, but just make sure to check in with God from time to time. Sometimes we are given tasks we would rather not do, or have to work with others who test our patience, or we succumb to feelings of moodiness. We are human beings and these feelings are a part of our nature. We have good days and we have bad days, however the most important thing is to seek God in every situation. Doing ministry work here in Camden can be very overwhelming. Everyday we are faced with new situations, new people, and new tasks. In order to do any of it, every morning we place ourselves in the hands of God and pray for the strength to live today and to do things well. When we turn to prayer, God gives us the grace to be more and do more than we can ever do on our own.
At New Visions Homeless shelter today, our group of interns interacted with the many people coming in to stay cool during the summertime heat wave. We mingled about the room, but the four of us sat down and spoke with Jay and Amy.
I saw Sarah talking to a young couple eating lunch together in the dining room of the shelter. I decided to sit down and introduce myself. Jay and Amy were so friendly with us. We talked about the sweltering heat and their lunch. Jay was not satisfied with his peanut butter and jelly sandwich so Amy shared some of her ham and cheese sandwich with him. Amy got up to go to the bathroom and gave Jay a kiss before heading downstairs. Sarah went off to get to know some new people and Evan and Emma joined me. After Amy left, Jay started to open up. He told me he is 25 years old and originally from Deptford, NJ. He has been living in Camden for the last 3 months and has had an on again off again relationship with Amy for the past 5 years. His mother isn’t too happy about it and he expressed his plans of being with his mom again in Nevada where she has relocated. He doesn’t have any family left in New Jersey. “All I need is $10 and I’ll go to Vineland,” he said, quickly changing his mind about moving in with his mom. When I jokingly added that he needed to get Amy’s ticket he replied “Or I could leave her.” Then I asked him about his bandaged arm. Initially he hesitated but then responded, “I got an infection. I was in the hospital for a week.” He was quiet for a moment before adding, “I’ve made some mistakes. People will tell you some sad story about why they use drugs, but that’s bullshit. It’s a choice.” He continued by saying “There are two kinds of drug addicts in this word. The kind that will rob and kill for money and the other that will use whenever, I’m like that.”
When we look at the people visiting the homeless shelters, I think our immediate reaction is to feel sorry for them. Then I think of those people who seemingly have everything but have no kindness, no joy, and no honesty in their lives. The poor are honest with themselves. Even when they lie and deceive for drugs, they are willing to admit that what they are doing is wrong. Are we willing to be that honest with ourselves?
When you drive through the streets of Camden, it’s hard to imagine anyone having any hope here. The abandoned buildings, children playing in empty dirty lots, addicts walking past in a daze, it can seem like a lost cause, a hopeless place. Many residents live in fear and express their concerns about the safety of their children, the drug and gang activity, and the crime that grips the city. When you live in a place like this, you are taught to watch your back, your front, and your side because you never know what is lurking. But there is a way to combat the fear…through hope. Camden shines with hope that things will continue to get better. It has been exciting to meet with the different organizations, many of them faith based, that are working towards a better and brighter future. During our time here, we have met with non-profit organizations that believe some great changes are coming to the city and they are leading the way to making it happen. One such organization is Cooper’s Ferry. Cooper’s Ferry is a non-profit organization dedicated to the revitalization of this city that was once the center of South Jersey. The Waterfront facing Philadelphia has been completely transformed since the business settled in Camden in the 80’s. Through their tireless efforts, they have created the opportunity for companies to establish themselves in Camden and provide jobs and revenue to the city. They are also committed to helping the residents through home renovations and park beautification. It was inspiring to hear about upcoming projects and the hope they have of building something great for the residents of Camden. As we meet with different organizations we have learned the power of sharing a common goal with others and working together to achieve amazing results. We pray that the people of Camden never lose hope and that they place their fears into the hands of God who is always merciful and compassionate.
There is something undeniably special about this city. Despite the poverty, the crime, and the loss of young lives there are such tender and beautiful moments. There is generosity, warmth, and sincerity in the way people interact with one another. One such moment occurred in our own backyard. On Tuesday night we had a BBQ in gratitude for the work DSW does all year long. However the real guest of honor was Ken, a man who has been living in the streets of Camden for years. When the Oblates arrived, he was one of the first to offer his help to navigate through the city’s dangerous streets. As time went on, he bonded with the people here and cannot imagine what life will be like without them. With tears in his eyes Ken expressed his gratitude to all of the De Sales Service workers. “You’re my brothers,” he said to Father Mike and Father Matt. This moment resonated with all of the interns. When we sat down to reflect on our day, we discussed how moved we all were with Ken’s sincerity. In life we are tempted to focus more on our differences than in our similarities. We forget that we have much more in common. We all want to feel loved and appreciated and in the short time that I have been here, I am overwhelmed by how much love I have received from complete strangers and from my fellow interns. During the week, we also visited the New Visions Homeless Shelter. As we walked into the dilapidated church that was converted to serve the poor of Camden, we were nervous and excited to meet with them. “Who would we meet? What stories would they share?” we wondered. After cleaning cans and shelves (hey nothing is small in the service of the Lord) Sarah and I talked to Wayne and Antoine who made us laugh with their version of the Sixth Sense. One memorable quote was, “Stupid, you dead that’s why your wife can’t see you.” Evan and Emma sat down with Guy who expressed candidly, “What are you guys doing here? You couldn’t pay me two billion dollars to live in Camden. “ But here we are nonetheless. Many may not understand why a group of young college students would want to spend their summer in service and sacrifice, but we are here because we know that when much is given, much is expected. We desire to grow in love and service in our time here. Like the Good Samaritan in yesterday’s Gospel we must reach out to our neighbor and love him as we love ourselves. As we head into this week we take with us the encouraging words of a man who was riding his bicycle down Market Street. He saw our group walk out of the Cathedral after Sunday mass and without knowing who we are or what we are doing here in Camden, he shouted to us, “Ya’ll are planting good seeds. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
On July 7, 2013, four interns arrived at the De Sales Service Works house in Camden, NJ. For the next three weeks, they will be serving the community to get a sense of what it is like to work and live in the most dangerous city in America.
Sarah is originally from Bel-Air, Maryland and will soon be moving to New York to attend St. John’s University this fall. She loves to read, listen to music, go biking, sleep, eat, do zumba, and write letters. The 20 year old previously visited Camden for four days and the experience was life changing. Before coming here, she had no idea what to expect. Once she arrived and was given the staggering statistics on the poverty, crime and drug problems plaguing this city, she was shocked. In the few days she has been here, she has enjoyed working with the homeless population of Camden. Visiting the New Visions Homeless shelter has been her favorite experience thus far. With open sincerity, she listens to their stories and shares her own dreams and goals with them. “One thing that I’ve learned so far is how easy their fate can become our fate so we shouldn’t judge people for being homeless,” she stated. She will be working at Hope Works tutoring students in English and teaching them how to do presentations for school.
Emma is from Williamsburg, Virginia and attends the University of Georgia. The 19 year old likes to read, watch movies, spend time with friends and family, and play tennis. Her first visit to Camden was during her junior year of high school. Before her arrival, she had heard about Camden as a place where drugs and crime ran rampant. “I didn’t expect it to be as run down as it actually is. There are many abandoned buildings and places so badly neglected,” she expressed once she saw the city for herself. She expects to learn more about Camden and meet the great people who are working to make it a better place. The dedication they have to combating stereotypes and giving back to their community has inspired her. Her favorite experience so far has been feeding the homeless at the Sandwich Ministry at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Her positive outlook and enthusiasm will be put to good use at the Sports Camp in Northgate Park. She is very excited to be working with the youth of Camden.
Evan is 18 years old and lives in Rodchester, Minnesota. He will be a freshman at St. Cloud State University this fall. He enjoys hanging out with friends, watching tv and movies, playing games, and learning about the military. He heard about the DSW program from his brother who encouraged him to participate in the three week service. Before coming here, he knew that Camden is one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in America. He imagined downtrodden homes and poor living conditions and came with the desire to feed the homeless and lend a helping hand in any way possible. “I feel like I’ve become more understanding of the problems that exist here in Camden,” he shared. His favorite experience so far has been the fellowship of the community living at the DSW house. The great food and stories shared during their time together is a big part of his experience here. His sense of humor and great energy will be appreciated by the kids at the Sports Camp in North Gate Park.
Mariannie is a 25 year old Camden native. She is a recent graduate of Camden County College who hopes to continue her education at Rutgers University. She will be working at the City Invincible Charter School in Camden come September. Some of her favorite activities include reading, writing, dancing, working out, and watching movies. After reading a flyer about the program on the bulletin board of her parish, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, she decided to participate in the program and give back to her community. “Growing up in Camden is not ideal, but I have a lot of happy memories from my childhood,” she said. As she walks the city’s streets, many forgotten moments come to mind. She is proud to be from such a vibrant and loving community because despite all of the problems, there is a hope that things can and will get better. Her favorite experiences so far have been things that require her to try something new whether it was learning how to kayak at Cooper River Park or starting a conversation with a complete stranger. She will be working on interviewing undocumented immigrants to get a better understanding of what their life is like here in the U.S.