This post is dedicated to Logan Peterson, an Elder at First Presbyterian Church, Haddonfield who has taken time out of his extraordinarily busy high school and church schedule to set up this blog for me. Thanks, Logan –
A couple of weeks ago at church, a well-meaning couple asked if I was safe going to work in Camden every day. I am afraid that my answer was less than sincere, as I experienced annoyance at being asked this. And yet…did I not ask that very same question of myself months ago when I started coming here? And hasn’t the murder rate of Camden graced the front of the Philadelphia Inquirer recently? It is up to 67, shattering prior records. In fact, the 67th murder was of a young woman who was an UP StreetLeader alumni. Camden has an ominous reputation. That same Sunday I suggested to another congregant that after we finish painting the room where I will be providing clinical services we could take a carload of people or two over for a tour of the UP campus. The response was that perhaps pictures would suffice…I might be reading into this but I suspect fear of driving into Camden was behind that answer as well.
So I came to UP that following week and began to ask staff, “Just how dangerous is it to come here and work?” because I realized I might have become desensitized by my time spent here. Here is what I heard: the murders are occurring in the drug communities. It’s all about the time of day – Camden in daylight is way safer than at night. That technically the main campus is in Pennsauken, and that we are practically in Merchantville.
2 answers intrigued me, though. One was that children are living here, living in violence and destitution. How can we not be here to help them, even if there are situations that are threatening?
The other was by a gentleman who grew up going to UP programs, and now has his children here in school. He also works here part time. He said, “If you stay away, you might miss your blessings”. Wow.
With all the heartbreaking stories that are heard here – of children whose lunches are small because there is not enough food at home, of children who have no home, can only afford one uniform, have no place to do homework because home is chaotic – blessings abound. On Tuesday I had the privilege of chaperoning 16 middle school youth as we went caroling at businesses which support UP throughout the year. My heart swelled as the youth sang in earnest about winter wonderlands and a few of their favorite things…yesterday one of the juniors in high school told me she didn’t know how she’d make it through the year if I wasn’t here to talk to. In health class I am blessed with students who are engaged and absorb our discussions of healthy relationships and about the body. I have been blessed, too, by those who work in Camden in other capacities – like the staff at Hopeworks, whose eyes are filled with passion as they describe how they empower youth with IT training.
I am reading a daily Advent meditation by Henri Nouwen. Yesterday’s entry resonated with this blog theme:
Do not be afraid…your prayer has been heard. Luke 1:13
As disciples of Jesus, we are sent to wherever there is poverty, loneliness, suffering of any kind. We are given the courage to be with suffering people. We can trust by entering into places of pain, we will find the joy of Jesus. A new world grows out of compassion. The call to compassionate ministry is a great call. But we must not be fearful. We must not say, “I can’t do that.” When we are aware that we are the beloved, and when we have friends around us with whom we live in community, we can do anything. We’re not afraid anymore…
My prayer for my congregation and indeed for all who have a heart for Camden, is that we will not let momentary fear keep us from reaching out and doing work which can bring so much meaning.