Yet another summer draws to a close, and I reflect upon what I’ve learned.
“Changing Camden?” the young tattooed cashier of the 7-11 asked in disbelief, reading my T-shirt. “You think you’re changing Camden?”
I pointed across the street at the student center. “It’s our camp T-shirt for Urban Promise,” I explained, a little bit taken aback.
The cashier chuckled in a manner superior, yet hopeless. “Camden’s too bad. There ain’t no changing Camden.
There ain’t no changing Camden. And he may very well be right. The city of Camden may be like this for many years to come.
Graffitied on the wall of yet another abandoned building in South Camden is this message:
God forgives. Niggaz don’t.
Walt Whitman writes of his beloved home, Camden,
“I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream’d that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love — it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.”
Some might say Camden has been conquered many times over. Drugs, prostitution, crime. Death, darkness, hopelessness. Unmeasurable pain. Especially for the children.
UrbanPromise can’t fix Camden. But it changes people. It gives kids a wholesome environment in which they can thrive. It lets teens know that they don’t have to follow the patterns modeled for them. It empowers youth with a solid education and the tools to find stable employment. And it shows what the spread of justice and peace looks like to everyone who steps foot into the ministry.
“I wish you could see Camden and see the lovely little children who are trying to grow up here in ugly situations—like so many flowers in fields of old tires and broken bottles. Oh, if I had a wish it would be that the world of little children would be soft and beautiful as our tender God first intended—before we tore His dreams with our greed and neglect.”
So writes Father Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Parish in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden.
And yet, and yet. They are beautiful beyond description. I came to Camden in the middle of June with hands ready to work for the good of the city, but I found here a community of beautiful people, children who happily and unreservedly showered me with a love that transforms. They have been the faces of Christ to me in this place of shattered glass and shattered lives. They have reminded me of the curiosity, the wonder, the joy in small things. God has blessed me with their friendship.
Thank you to the children of Camden for their willingness to welcome me with daily hugs and lovely smiles.
Thank you to UrbanPromise for glowing in Camden as a beacon of hope.
Thank you to the people of Sacred Heart, Camdenhouse, and Fellowship House for sharing your stories and your lives with me.
Finally, thank you to the city of Camden, for teaching me so much and broadening my perspective of the world. From my roots, I could only see the world from the vantage point of the privileged, white middle class. After this summer, I see with eyes that have grown sharper toward issues that infringe on human dignity, not just from a theoretical standpoint but from a practical one – having seen the perpetration of these human rights struggles. Camden, you have taught me much and stretched me to see with different eyes.