For the better part of 50 years, when I thought about Camden, N.J. — if I thought about the city at all — I’d envision driving as quickly as possible through a blighted urban wasteland to get across the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia.
I didn’t envision young people building boats in a deconsecrated church, or designing websites in a beautifully remodeled house whose walls are covered with original art, or being guided by caring adults through the traumas they’ve experienced and into health, wholeness, and academic achievement.
What a gift, then, to be reintroduced to the city through ministries that bring Camden’s human vitality to the surface, where it shines far above the daunting statistics upon which the city’s troubled reputation is built.
Make no mistake: The challenges are real. Camden is the most economically distressed city in the United States, according to a new report from the Economic Innovation Group. It is also considered one of the country’s poorest and most dangerous.
Between stops on a whirlwind bus tour of four Episcopal churches and three youth organizations, I heard a litany of causes for Camden’s ills, including white flight, loss of industry, proximity to Philadelphia, bridge construction that disrupted neighborhoods, political corruption, and racial tensions. I also heard about the city’s needs: education, venture capital, employment, transportation, and home ownership among them.
The men and women who led this tour have invested their lives into meeting some of these needs. They are an impressive group of world changers: people like Urban Promise Executive Director Jodina Hicks and Creative Director Shannon Oberg, both of whom began their long tenures with the organization as college interns and were legally co-parenting youth not much younger than themselves when they were just 20 years old. People like Marcus Bell, who narrated the tour and has been working with the organization on and off for 25 years.
Urban Promise grew out of the work of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) and its founder Tony Campolo in the late 1980s. Among its suite of offerings are elementary and secondary schools, afterschool programs, summer camps, a wellness center, and fine arts programs, and a boat works where young people learn to build seaworthy wooden vessels that they navigate on nearby waters.
An Urban Promise board member and treasurer for the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey arranged a tour for the denomination’s new Presiding Bishop, Michael B. Curry, and other leaders gathering in nearby Cherry Hill, N.J., for the annual convention of the local diocese.
At Urban Promise’s campus, a student assembly of testimony, poetry, and song greeted the bishop’s entourage. High school student Yormeliz Vazquez highlighted a long list of activities she had engaged in through Urban Promise.
“Three years ago, I was living in Puerto Rico. I had done none of these things. But when an experience comes up and I catch it in my eyes, and it stays in my eyes — I have to do it. I believe I must take every opportunity that is offered to me. It just turns out that at UrbanPromise, there are lots of opportunities,” Vazquez said.
Hearing speeches like hers, when Presiding Bishop Curry told the students that “the only thing greater than yourself is God” and encouraged them to see themselves and their classmates as future leaders who work together to better the world around them, it was easy to envision them actually doing it.
A stop at Hopeworks ‘N Camden offered another uplifting glimpse into the hopes and dreams of the city’s youth. Founded in 2000 by Jesuit Fr. Jeff Putthoff to help young people “find a safe pathway to their future,” the non-sectarian organization trains 14-23 year olds in web design and development, offering them job training and other kinds of support. It was named 2016 Nonprofit Organization of the year by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
“One of the key things that people see when they walk through is the technology and the jobs and kids enrolling in college. That’s probably the least important thing that we do here,” said Executive Director Dan Rhoton.
“What we know is when our young people disappoint us, when they don’t get the job or they don’t stay in college, it’s not because they didn’t have the skills, it’s because the things that have happened to them often hold them back.”
Using an approach called the Sanctuary Model, Hopeworks helps participants understand their histories and trains them to have safety plans for dealing with their emotions, Rhoton said.
“Instead of what’s wrong with you that you’re showing up late every day, we’re asking what’s happened. What are the challenges that are getting in the way and how do we help you resolve those so that you can be successful?” said Director of Youth Impact Dannyelle Austin.
The purpose of our tour, Marcus Bell had said, was to consider the question: How do we engage, not only Episcopal churches, but all kinds of churches, in restoring both the community and people’s faith?
Of the four Episcopal churches that we visited, only Iglesia San Andres Episcopal, a congregation with a weekly attendance of 135, seemed to be bursting at the seams.
“We have a little problem on Sunday; we’re too crowded,” said its rector, the Rev. Canon Pedro S. Guzman.
The church feeds more than 160 needy families each month through its food pantry and says the city is making it difficult for the church to install a wheelchair lift that will help make its humble building accessible to all.
Congregants reportedly walked the streets of their neighborhood, introducing more than 150 people to “their hopes, dreams, and faith.”
Latino congregations like San Andres “have something to teach us about evangelism,” said Bishop of New Jersey William H. (Chip) Stokes. For others in the city, effective ministry will have to involve partnerships with groups like Urban Promise, he said.
“Clearly our churches are limited in terms of the number of people and financial resources, and yet we’ve got these places,” Stokes said.
“We need to have major community conversations to see what evolves from that.”
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers serves as Presiding Bishop Curry’s Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation. She described the ministry we saw happening in Camden as “sharing the good news and being the good news.”
It’s this kind of work that is at the heart of the presiding bishop’s understanding of ministry and the church, she said.
“Folks throughout the Episcopal Church were saying yes to that when they elected him, because he was very straight up. ‘It’s going to be about going forth. It’s not going to be about sitting in our churches, waiting for people to come to us. It’s not going to be about going in and trying to fix other people’s lives or other people’s communities. It’s going to be about partnership. It’s going to be about reconciliation,’” said Spellers.
“Ministries that are like the ones we’re seeing today, that are connecting with neighborhoods, that are bringing cities back... making communities whole again — that’s good news.”