Saturday, June 19, 2010


For the past six days, I've been in Camden, New Jersey. When I first signed up to go, it was because a chaperone gets paid $500 to go, and I needed the money for the wedding. I like service trips as well, and I hoped that I'd get something out of it as well. I can safely say not only did I get something out of it, it might have been the biggest proponent of restoring my faith this year.

Camden is a city of 9 square miles across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The only reason I had ever heard of the city before is that it regularly competes with Baltimore (in my home state) and Detroit for most dangerous city in America. The city has no tax base as the state of New Jersey has abandoned it. All major economic opportunities the city should have (three hospitals, and waterfront property) are squandered. The hospitals are tax exempt, and the state owns the waterfront. Three of the last six mayors have been indicted for their crimes in office. I've seen crime and poverty before, but never so concentrated in such a small area. Below is a picture of Fern Street in Camden taken in (from top left, clockwise) 1979, 1988, 1997, and 2004.

Our school took 12 students this particular week to the Romero Center on Federal Street in Camden. We slept in the dorms that once housed nuns for the adjacent St. Joseph's parish. There was a big living room in which we had all of our prayers, reflections, and down time. In this area, there were inspiring murals and lively colors (though my pictures are rather dark).

The students and teachers really did grow to be close in this space of hospitable yet humble surroundings. In this space, some cried (mostly me), there was a ton of laughter, and there was a fair share of deep thought.

Each morning, after breakfast, we started here with prayer as a group. We then went out to a service site that we selected the night before. Some of the service sites were in Philly, some in Camden. A big part of the work we did was "ministry of presence." For many disabled people, homeless people, or people infected with HIV/AIDS, simply having someone to sit and talk with that is not afraid of them is a great joy.

On the first night, we each had three dollars and organized into families of three people each. We drove to a grocery store and were told to feed ourselves for the next day - breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Though I wasn't one of the groups, some groups were unable to use refrigeration or electricity as if they were homeless. I really gained a new appreciation for those on welfare. In New Jersey, people get 87 cents per person per meal per day to live off of. I can personally say that this is not enough. During the day, I could not think straight, I had a headache, and I was always tired. I even took a nap, which I never do. When children are experiencing this battle during the school day, their attention level and grades suffer, which only perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

On the first day of service, I visited Francis House. This house is a place for people with HIV/AIDS to go and be with other people who accept them. We met a man named Eddie, who used to be an activist. He was diagnosed in 1979 (yes, nineteen seventy nine). A short time ago, he was at death's door, in a coma for three months. By the grace of God, he woke up, though he forgot how to walk and talk. He is still full of joy and tells his story to anyone who will listen. The saddest part of his story was that he could never tell his parents that he was infected for fear of being disowned.

The second day, we took a tour (by car) of Camden. It's amazing to see the destruction and creation taking place in the city. We were able to see work done by St. Joseph's Carpenter Society. The society took one of the most dangerous neighborhoods, where people had to drag the deceased through the street to a place where an ambulance would pick them up, into a gorgeous low income housing neighborhood. The duplexes are sold at $80,000 after candidates complete homeowner education classes. In order to keep a sense of community and keep the houses in the hands of those who need them, the houses cannot be sold for profit until 10 years after they are purchased. Later that morning, I worked at Bethesda Bainbridge. This is a permanent shelter for about thirty men who have been homeless with a history of addiction or mental illness. We were only able to stay a short time, but we were able to perform some housekeeping tasks for them while we were there.

The third day changed my life forever. I will never forget what happened that day. I chose to go to a place called Toviah Thrift Shop. I was warned that the owner, Rev. Larry Falcon, was amazing. I was game. We always talk, in the Catholic faith, about seeing the face of God in others. For the first time, I can truly say I have.

Papa, as everyone calls him, runs the thrift shop only to keep open his ministry to at-risk youth just west of Center City in Philadelphia. This man loves to talk, and we could have listened to him all day. He talks fondly of all of the children he works with. You can tell that he genuinely cares. On his left hand, he keeps a prayer list. We were even on there before we got there. He wears his heart not just on his sleeve, but proudly out for everyone to see. Next to the thrift shop, he is working on a small garden in the middle of a concrete jungle.

It amazed me that he can find inspiration in the most benign things. In the background of the above picture is a tree. The tree is shading his garden and needs to be removed. Though he notched the tree correctly, he sawed 95% of the way through when the tree shifted and clamped down on the saw. He has not been able to move it. When he was telling us about it, he stopped for a second and smiled. He noted that the whole tree is still alive because of the sap running through the half an inch still left joining the two halves. He didn't half to explain to us the metaphor because we were right there with him. I don't have enough time in the day to explain how wonderful this man is. There's a lovely article about him in Philadelphia City Paper. But really, you need to go there yourself.

On the last service day, my time was split between volunteering at a parish preschool and serving lunch to homeless men at St. John's Hospice in Philadelphia. The children were precious. They are graduating next week, and are so full of energy and love, despite the appalling conditions of their surroundings. As for the homeless men, I was struck by how normal they are. I've served in soup kitchens before. I should know this. But when I saw a man that looked just like my dad, I had to keep myself from crying. It feels great to know that you are, in some small way, making a difference for people who are often overlooked.

After each service trip, we had a small group reflection and a prayer service. It really helps to internalize and process all the things we saw and did. The reflections also allowed people who did not go to a site to understand and benefit from others' accounts of their work. At the end of the trip, last night, we had a commissioning ceremony. We each named one things we would leave behind (as in misconceptions), one memory we'll keep, and one thing we'll take away from the experience. I said, and I honestly believe, that I'll try my hardest to find a parish into which I fit so that I can continue service work. I became a teacher to serve others, but sometimes it's not enough. And really, though I'm helping other people, I'm healing myself. One of the passages they read to us was Isaiah 58:6-8.

6 "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

I rather liked the way that Papa explained it (amusingly, without knowing they read us this passage). He said the worst kind of occupation is preoccupation. You get on a downward spiral of you, you, you, you, you. Serving others helps you break free of that. I really do believe that by helping others and living a life of service, that I will ease my anxieties and live a more fulfilling life.

That being said, it's past midnight on my first day home and I'm exhausted. Good night, World!

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