Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Mission to Camden

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
Curate’s Corner

"Mission to Camden"

One of my best friends serves as Director of Campus Ministry at the Loyola School, a Roman Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. From time to time over the past four or five years I have heard her tell stories about the powerful experience of bringing groups of her students on mission trips to Camden. She has told me that these young men and women are so transformed by their time there that they frequently sign up for return visits, although they receive no school credit for their service.

I know in the past Grace Church youth and their adult chaperones have had excellent mission trips to Central America, Indian reservations and Appalachia. As I began to think about this year’s mission trip, I recalled the stories I have heard from my friend about the Romero Center. I also reflected on how our world has changed since the last mission trip. I considered the economic recession which has caused anxiety for many and real suffering for some. Maybe this would be a good year to stay closer to home and work among the poor in our part of the country. After talking it over with Lauren and the J2A leaders, I decided that this year’s mission trip would take us just under a hundred miles away from Madison. This year, from August 3rd to the 8th, our mission is to Camden.

The facts and figures about Camden are horrifying. It is the second-poorest city in the nation with an unemployment rate more than three times the national average. The median income for a family of four in the city is $18,000. Camden has a population of 80,000 and has three high schools, three supermarkets, three prisons and three hospitals. Half of the population is illiterate and the school dropout rate is 70%. Only 7% of the population has a college degree or higher. One out of every five homes in Camden is abandoned and there are 200 active drug corners with 3000 drug dealers in the city. It is estimated that $200 million is spent on drugs every year in Camden. This is a place of great suffering right here in New Jersey.

Our group of ten young people and five adults will be participating in the “Urban Challenge” program at the Romero Center located in a former convent in the heart of Camden. Named for the martyred El Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, the center describes itself as a “Peace and Social Justice Education Center.” Its mission is “to build bridges of understanding between people of faith in urban and suburban churches, leading people to a deeper awareness of our prophetic vocation, as we respond to our sisters and brothers in remarkable need.” The center aims to achieve this mission through means of “service, education, community and reflection.”

During the week we will be living in community, preparing our own meals and cleaning up after ourselves. Each day will begin with morning prayer, led by participants. Then we will head out to various work sites in the Camden and Philadelphia area. These may include rehabilitating housing, working in schools and pre-schools, preparing and serving meals at soup kitchens, assisting at the South Jersey Food Bank, and more. One of the most attractive elements of the “Urban Challenge” is the emphasis on how we will benefit from our encounter with the people of Camden. These sentences from the Romero Center’s promotional literature jumped out at me: “Most participants come prepared for what they will do for Camden. Typically, they are unprepared for what Camden will do for them.”

Each afternoon we will return to the Romero Center, discuss the places we have visited and the people we have met and reflect on the social justice issues raised by our experiences. Each evening after dinner the Romero Center presents a variety of social justice programs including an impressive roster of guest speakers and community activities and events. Our days will conclude with evening prayer during which each of us will reflect on the day – recalling a gift we received and how God challenged or stretched us.

Our time in Camden promises to be both challenging and rewarding. I look forward to sharing the experience with the parish in the fall. Meanwhile I hope that you will keep all of the participants in your prayers. The youth are: Will Brooks, Alexis Cardwell, Grace Cole, Tommy Cullen, Erica Faletto, Joey Geyer, Will Geyer, Lindsey Kellstrom, Kathy Meyer and Brian Tross. Along with me, the adults are: Geoff Brooks, Mike Cullen, Bill Geyer, and Lisa Lawson.