Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Mission Trip Reflections: Naming the Poor

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
September 2009

Mission Trip Reflections: Naming the Poor

On a Monday morning a few weeks ago I felt a mix of emotions as we prepared to leave for our mission trip to Camden. I was excited that this long-planned trip was now about to begin. I was nervous about the safety of all of us who would be spending the better part of a week in one of America’s poorest and most dangerous cities. I was also profoundly grateful for the generosity, openness and courage of the young people and adults who had volunteered to travel down the New Jersey Turnpike into what was for most of us uncharted and intimidating territory.

In Camden we stayed at the Romero Center, which is housed in a former Roman Catholic convent in the center of the city. The accommodations were simple but comfortable. I was pleasantly surprised by the very effective central air conditioning. We began by learning about the center’s namesake, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. For much of his life Romero was very much a moderate, preferring to stay out of the political, social and economic controversies of his country. After he was chosen as archbishop (mostly because he was viewed by those in power as easily controlled) he became increasingly outspoken against the violence and injustice in his country. Romero paid the ultimate price for his commitment to the Gospel when he was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating the Eucharist.

There were several central themes to our time in Camden. One was the simple act of providing service to people very much in need. In my case I worked at an industrial kitchen in Philadelphia called “Manna” which provides healthy and tasty meals to people with AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. I spent another day volunteering at an adult day care center for people with physical and mental disabilities. Another day I walked the streets of Camden telling people about “Hopeworks ‘N Camden” – an organization providing computer training and employment for young people in the city. On my last day in the city I was at “New Visions,” a drop-in center for homeless people. Other members of our group helped build a playground, painted classrooms in a parochial school, worked at a huge food bank called “Philabundance” and offered the ministry of presence to people with HIV and AIDS.

Along with offering service we were challenged to get to know the people we were serving. We were inspired by these words were painted in large letters on the wall in our common meeting room: “So you say you love the poor…name them.” We were encouraged to learn people’s names and then tell others about the people we had met and the stories they had shared. On the bulletin board outside Nieman Hall you can see the names of some of those we met in Camden and Philadelphia.

The last central theme was learning about the social and economic injustices which have contributed to the poverty of Camden and about those who are fighting for social and economic justice. We learned that food stamps provide on average 87 cents per meal per person. In order to understand what that means one day we were divided into “families” of four, walked a few blocks to a local supermarket, and were each allowed to spend no more than three dollars per person. The next day we could only eat the food we had purchased. As I mentioned in a recent sermon it was a day of cheap and unsatisfying bread for many of us! We also toured Camden, driving down many streets disfigured by abandoned houses and businesses. We saw – and more importantly, smelled – the large sewage treatment plant casting a malodorous blanket over an entire neighborhood and cutting off part of the city from the waterfront.

Obviously, it would be easy to despair in the face of so much poverty and misfortune. Yet, while recognizing the enormous challenges that exist in Camden, I was energized and inspired by the experience. Wherever we worked we found so many compassionate and joyful people committed to living out the gospel challenges to love our neighbor and to offer food, drink and shelter to the poorest and most vulnerable. I was also deeply moved by our youth and adults. In many ways it was a very challenging week but each morning the members of our group went off into the unknown with enthusiasm and energy. At the end of each day they offered thoughtful reflections about their experiences. Our youth and adults were willing to not just serve the poor but name them.

Special thanks to the adults who served as chaperones and also fully participated in the experience: Geoff Brooks, Mike Cullen, Bill Geyer and Lisa Lawson. Many thanks also to the parents and spouses who sacrificed to make the mission trip possible. Thanks also to Julie Geyer and Linda Faletto for their help with fundraising. Finally, thanks to the parish for your prayers and encouragement.