Archive for December, 2010

Last Sunday, my family was invited to visit the Greater Hartford Church of Christ in New Britain for their Christmas Worship Service.

A member of the church, Augusto Russell, shared a true story during the service that helps spread some Christmas joy. Augusto mentioned that another member of the church works for a local post office and about this time last year, a letter arrived to the post office addressed to God.

Unsure of what to do, the postman made the decision to open the envelope. Inside was a letter from an aged widow who wrote something along these lines:

Dear God,

My friends and I do not have much money. I was hoping you might be able to help us out with a Christmas dinner. If you could find it in your heart to provide us with $100, I could buy enough food for a wonderful Christmas meal. This would mean a lot to all of us.

The heart of the postal worker was moved and so he decided he would try to answer the letter. He passed the letter and a hat around to his co-workers and soon collected $94 in donations to send back to the widow.

A couple weeks into the new year, a second letter from the widow arrived to the post office. With eager anticipation, the workers gathered to find out the result of their generosity. The letter read:

Dear God,

Thank you so much for answering my prayer. My friends and I enjoyed an amazing evening and great meal. We will never forget this.

P.S. I think those jerks at the Post Office stole 6 bucks.

Michael Vick is an episode of ‘This American Life’ waiting to be produced. It seems everyone has a take on Vick, from the vehement critics he earned with his despicable off-the-field killing and torturing of dogs for which he served prison time to the adoring fans who have forgiven Vick as he has resurrected his professional football career in a way that has the phoenix considering retirement. Amidst persistent controversy and criticism, the remarkable comeback of Mike Vick unveiled its latest chapter on Sunday December 10, 2010 in a contest that appeared to be more a microcosm of his life’s journey than simply another game.

I was following the Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants game this past Sunday while running at the gym, paying particularly close attention to the performance of the Eagles’ Quarterback, who doubles as the quarterback on my little brother Eric’s fantasy football team. Eric and I were competing in cyberspace to determine which of our fantasy teams would be in competition of the “Daddy Pants” league finals this Sunday, with the first points of our annual brotherly competition at stake. I won’t go into details, but the competition is a big deal, so I was pleased to see that Vick, who has been playing out of his mind this season, was performing at a very pedestrian rate throwing for only one touchdown and accumulating less than one hundred yards passing as the fourth quarter got underway. With Philadelphia down 31-10 with less than eight minutes to play, I headed home from the gym, confident that if Eric’s team should out-fantasize my own, it would certainly not be due to the exploits of Number 7.

Of course, upon checking the update of our fantasy football battle, Vick had somehow accumulated an insane 99 points during my drive home resulting in a 38-31 Eagles’ Vick-tory and the demise of my fantasy team. The Eagles scored a mind-boggling four touchdowns in the final eight minutes to overtake the Giants and sole possession of first place in the NFC East with two games to play, while making a strong case that the first two letters in MVP stand for Michael Vick. I should have been shocked, but it seems extraordinary occurrences are commonplace for Mr. Vick these days.

Just over a month ago on November 15, 2010, Vick set an NFL record by accounting for five first half touchdowns against the Washington Redskins in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football en route to six touchdowns in three quarters and a 59-28 demolition of Washington. The performance was so dominant that it inspired 11 time national sportswriter of the year Rick Reilly to dedicate his weekly ESPN column to the headline that is Michael Vick.

In his article entitled “Time to Forgive Vick Is Here”, Reilly argued Vick paid a reasonable the price for his crimes against animals by serving 18 months in the notorious Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary which could easily have cost him his entire career. Reilly didn’t make the case that Vick’s delinquency should be forgotten, but did ask what more could justifiably be asked of him:

“The man is contrite. He is humbled. He is chastened. He has already given 24 speeches for the Humane Society. He has dismissed his old friends, has even run from them when they show up. What else is he supposed to do? Move into a dog kennel himself?”

The article piqued my interest when Reilly mentioned Vick would be using his off-day the following week to travel to Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut to talk about the evils of dog fighting. As a social worker in New Haven, I am often in the city’s schools dealing with emergent crises, but over the past year I have walked the halls of Hillhouse so often I feel like an honorary staffer.

From fellow El Capitan alum Kevin McAdam playing with Vick first at Virginia Tech and then with the Atlanta Falcons and then our Chargers nearly selecting Vick with the first pick in the 2001 NFL draft (which they traded to Atlanta for receiver Tim Dwight and draft picks that became LaDainian Tomlinson, Tay Cody and Reche Caldwell), I often felt Vick’s story was just a step away from intersecting with my own, even if only insignificantly. So I found significance in his plans to be present at Hillhouse and found my way into the school’s auditorium on November 23, 2010 in hopes of discerning whether the talented performer’s repentance act was genuine or just an attempt at a career makeover.

New Haven advertises itself with the slogan, “It all happens here,” but for a day it didn’t seem like such an exaggeration as both Vick and Bill Cosby were in town to speak to students. The Hillhouse kids didn’t seem to mind much that they were missing out on Cosby as they were brimming with energy and weren’t paying much attention to either Assistant Principal Ms. G or Principal Carolina’s appeals to quiet down. I made my way through the packed crowd and found a seat among the soon-to-be state champion Hillhouse High School varsity football team, less than a 40 yard dash from the stage prepared for Vick.

Principal Carolina announced he would bring Vick out and the excitement reached a fever pitch. With no Vick in sight, students began to give themselves whiplash with every preemptive shrill of excitement, believing the quarterback was capable of entering the room like a ninja, stealthily from any direction (ironically the Giants looked as if they shared this belief on Sunday in their attempts to tackle Vick in the 4th quarter). Screams started to accompany any athletic black male who entered the auditorium looking for one of the last seats as we appeared well on our way toward a fire code violation.

Vick entered stage right and the crowd erupted, but not as loud as I expected as it appeared some kids had already lost their voices and others had stoically convinced themselves that after five minutes of false alarms, they would no longer be punked, even when Vick actually showed up. The applause was generous and without any hint of dog lovers voicing their disapproval. I wondered if Vick’s reception would have been colder had he shown up in the suburbs or if he hadn’t recently ascended back to the level of NFL star quarterback.

Vick’s earrings glistened in the spotlight and he flashed his celebrity smile. He was dressed in a solid gray pullover, dark jeans and black tennis shoes worn in the style of 2015 Marty McFly.

Accompanying Vick was Wayne Pacelle, a Hillhouse graduate, current President/CEO of the Humane Society of the United States and second fiddle in the eyes of the kids. Pacelle began by noting the Humane Society’s goal of stopping animal cruelty in all its forms and noted he and Vick were present to bring awareness to the Society’s End Dog Fighting Campaign which has already made stops in Chicago, Charlotte, Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia. Pacelle presented as thoughtful and well educated, but realized people had not flocked to see him and sat down after commending Vick for getting up at 6:00 am on his day off to take a train from Philadelphia to New Haven, and stating that the star athlete is not mandated by the conditions of his Probation to perform any community service in the form of public speaking.

In contrast to Pacelle, Vick did not project himself as a polished public speaker nor an intellectual, but he did appear genuine as he began his story. Introduced to dog fighting at the age of eight, Vick claimed he he never considered dog fighting to be inhumane and admitted both that he was unwilling to listen to the advice of those who told him it was wrong and that he had not cared about potential consequences of his involvement. Vick then confirmed the adage that ‘no criminal expects to be caught’ when he acknowledged that the gravity of his orchestration of dog fighting rings didn’t register with him until he was arrested and convicted.

Vick appeared to be at his most vulnerable when he admitted to repeatedly lying to his mother when she questioned him about whether he was involved in dog fighting. Vick’s mother did not find out the truth about her son until he was arrested, breaking her heart. Vick, who had signed the richest contract in NFL history in 2001, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 while serving his prison sentence and told the students, “When I was sitting in a prison cell, I wanted to give up, I really did.”

Vick made known that his nation-wide school campaign against dog fighting is part of his attempt to help more dogs than he has harmed and sternly warned that as a result of his conviction “all the laws have changed” and “if you fight dogs, you’ll serve a prison sentence.”

It turns out it actually was Vick who approached the Humane Society with the idea making amends through speaking to kids in an attempt to eradicate dog fighting, perhaps lending some credence to his answer to a student question that he feels he can best demonstrate his rehabilitation by owning and caring for a dog after his probation expires. Vick said his daughter sees people on a daily basis with dogs in their condo complex and asks him if she can get a dog too. Vick looked pained when he recounted that he can’t currently get a dog for his kids due to his “ill-advised actions.”

Vick reported, “I think I’m being used by God” and advised those gathered to “always believe that you got to keep God first.” He continued, “(God is) the only reason, the only reason, that I’m standing here today.” He almost appeared to laugh and professed, “Some of the things I’m doing now, playing at the level I’m playing, I don’t know how I’m doing them.” I’m not sure any of us know how Michael Vick is doing the things he is doing, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to view his story in light of Biblical redemption narratives or its metaphors about rising on wings of Eagles.

Vick has overcome giant obstacles in his Joseph-like rise from prison to stardom. To put things in perspective, the man who was incarcerated just 18 months ago is currently the NFL’s leading vote getter for the 2011 Pro Bowl (well ahead of the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning), guaranteeing that even if it’s not always sunny in Philadelphia this season, Vick will be able to bask in the Hawaii sun come late January. After Sunday’s victory over the Giants of New York, Vick gave credit to his teammates and again thanked God for the opportunity to participate in one of the “greatest comebacks of my career.” At this rate, Vick’s return to prominence may well someday be considered one of the greatest comebacks of any career. And while many remain unconvinced, I’ll count myself among the believers in Michael Vick.

“Santa Claus is coming to town! Santa Claus is coming to town!” At least, I think he is…

Christmas is a week away. Clara is now three years old, Shepard is sixteen months and next month a new child will be away in a manger putting any thoughts of a silent night well into the rear view mirror for the foreseeable future. But the idea of having three kids age three and under is not the primary thought occupying my mind this Holiday season (I’ll deal with that in January). Rather, it is the realization that three years into this journey of parenting, the white elephant in the room remains what to do with Old Saint Nick.

Jaime had a classic Santa experience believing until around age seven or eight. She has fond memories of believing in a larger than life figure who displayed extravagant generosity and being comforted that someone was looking out for all the children of the world, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. When Jaime figured the ruse out, she wasn’t upset, but instead delighted in assisting the faith of her younger siblings.

I, on the other hand, was that kid on the playground who was telling your kids that Santa was a hoax resulting in angry phone calls to my parents about how I was ruining the magic of Christmas. You see, my father had been a true believer in Father Christmas. When he found out the whole thing was fake, he felt deep in his soul that he had been lied to and when he recounts that moment, one can still hear the pain in his voice. I imagine his childhood anger dwarfing Miles Finch’s fury after being called an elf by Will Ferrell. What really got my dad going was that his own parents had deliberately duped him. He vowed that day he would never lie to his own children in such a manner. So, naturally I shared my father’s disdain for Kris Kringle as I was never given a chance to believe anything but anti-Claus propaganda.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter about my own childhood Christmas experiences. We had a great time and I don’t feel I lost anything by not believing in the jolly benefactor in the red suit. We still had presents under the tree, still opened stockings, still belted out “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But I want to believe there’s a third way. Something beyond deliberately lying to my own kids on the justification that the entire culture does it and therefore it must be okay, but leaving room for childlike faith to soar and grow in the goodwill of mankind, the supernatural, or both.

Presumably, the argument could be made that the whole Santa production is really for us parents and the enjoyment we receive from manipulating our children and then vicariously experiencing their wonderment. I don’t buy this theory entirely though due to the sheer number of folks who pleasantly recount their credence in the charm of the North Pole. Plus, if it were really all about Mom and Dad, it wouldn’t make sense to forgo all the credit for the awesome gifts and transfer the gratitude to an anonymous bearded senior citizen.

Then there’s the whole religious element. The origins of Santa Claus include a mix of semi-Christian mythology and history, but gradually he has become, at least to some degree, a symbol of the commercialism of the season. Some even protest Papa Noel as an anti-Christ figure, the icon of secularism that threatens to swallow the birth story of Christ. Even though Santa is an easy anagram for Satan, I don’t subscribe to any ill-will toward Mr. Claus and dismiss claims such as these quite easily; perhaps because my particular faith tradition was more concerned that December 25th was being celebrated as Jesus’ actual birthday without any “Scriptural authority” or common sense (shepherds don’t typically hang out with their flocks outdoors in the winter).

For a while I thought perhaps I could take an M Night Shyamalan approach to the whole Santa dilemma. You know, pull a “Sixth Sense”, never actually speaking about the guy, but not denying my kids the experience of believing. Then when they figure it all out they could look back and realize I had never actually said Santa was real. They could then replay their whole childhood looking for the red doorknobs that would have tipped them off sooner to the secret of Santa. But while I believe myself to be decently clever, my kids are pretty smart cookies and I recently had to resign that this plan is not feasible in the long run.

So back to the drawing board. But speaking of cookies, I am completely down for eating a plateful of warm chocolate chip cookies with a tall glass of milk each Christmas Eve. So count me in… for now.

I recently heard a radio interview with Sissela Bok, philosopher, author and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Bok spoke about notions of happiness in promoting her new book, but the radio show prompted me to think back on a writing exam I had to take as part of a graduation requirement for the University of Montana. The dreaded Upper Division Writing Proficiency Assessment. Most people fail the exam the first time out, but also don’t bother to read the assessment text which is made available two weeks prior to the test.

Below is what I handwrote in the two and a half hour timed exam in response to Bok’s 1978 article entitled “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life”. I received the highest score possible on the assessment and for a few years the essay was published online. Five years later, I feel some useful thoughts and information remain in regard to the respective rights of government and citizens as our country continually engages in debate over topics such as the effect of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, WikiLeaks and the current Congressional fight over tax cut extensions. The essay may lose a little of its strength without access to Bok’s original work, but I believe it stands on its own. Thanks for reading.

October 2005 UDWPA Exam
Author: Joshua Fisher, Junior, Social Work, University of Montana

The excerpt from Sissela Bok’s work, “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life” raises the question of the government’s boundary between discretion and deception. While some argue that deception is a right and tool of the government and those in power, Bok argues that unrestrained power in this regard leads to corruption. Thus, the public should at least have the right to question the government and have a forum to discuss what can or should be kept from the masses. In the historical context in which the article was written and in light of events that have since occurred, it is necessary to agree with the author in inquiring into political deception, yet it is also important to discuss whether the government’s power of deception is indeed warranted.

Bok published “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life” in 1978, a time at which government deception was a hot topic open for moral and legal debate. Just four years previous, President Nixon found himself in the midst of the Watergate scandal; he lied to the public and then resigned the Presidency. In 1976, two years prior to Bok’s article, the United States Navy revealed the results of their investigation into the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana, Cuba in 1898. This had been the seminal event in the fighting of the Spanish-American War. Although at the time the cause of the explosion was unknown it was widely believed and propagated that the Spaniards had sunk the Maine. The 1976 investigation showed that the Maine actually had exploded from spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bunker. A war fought nearly eight decades before the report was shown to the American public to have been fabricated, perhaps as a “noble lie,” but certainly as a “myth played on the gullibility of the ignorant” as Bok describes. Events such as Watergate and the Navy investigation into the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine were bringing the American public out of their trusting nature and gullibility.

Bok maintains that “noble lies” are the result of “gennaion,” a sense that the noble or powerful of society are both “highminded” and “wellbred.” In other words, the powerful of society viewed themselves as both qualified to lead and more intelligent than the lower classes. Bok cites both Plato and Benjamin Disraeli as examples of championing this attitude. Additionally, Bok references Arthur Sylvester, the Assistant Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, as being more blatant in his “gennaion” influenced speech, stating that the government has a right to lie, especially to save itself. While in 1978 the government’s right to lie was open for debate, it had certainly been made clear by Watergate and Nixon that the government certainly would lie, regardless of their right, in order to save itself.

It is also important to note that “gennaion” manifests in not only protective self interest, but in predatory self interest
as well. Disraeli, and his assumptions of the superior noble, is best known for being the British Prime Minister who brought India under British rule in his pursuit of imperialism. This imperialism was evident just decades later in the United States government’s involvement in the previously mentioned Spanish-American War of 1898. One has to ask, if there was no evidence that Spain attacked the U.S.S. Maine, then what motivation did the United States have in starting a war? Or perhaps more appropriately phrased, what did the noble elite stand to gain from a war at the expense of deceiving the public? The answer lies again in self-interest, and the lie that Bok presents which states that the powerful feel they have the right to determine what is best for the public and to act upon this conviction without the public’s consent. This was certainly the case of the Spanish-American War which was first “furnished” by influential newspaper moguls William Randolph Hearst of the “New York Journal” and Joseph Pulitzer of “The World” who created war propaganda against Spain in order to fuel newspaper sales. Once the gullible public had bought into the idea of“Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain,” the government quickly followed suit, appropriating $50 million dollars for war in what amounted to a war declaration. What did the government stand to gain? Their own imperialistic self-interest in the name of the public good. At the end of the war the United States had gained control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam at the expense of nearly 2,000 United States soldiers’ lives. While the government felt justified in their actions, one has to wonder how the soldiers families would have felt to know their sons died in a war that was not necessary to fight.

That situation sounds familiar as we near the year 2006. Soldiers are again being injured and killed in a war that could be seen as a concrete example of the “noble lie” and government deception. Against the threats of terrorism and a promise of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction America has again arguably entered into an imperialist mode for the sake of self interest. What is the self interest the deception is based on this time around? That is what the public wants to know. As Bok argues, from the perspective of the deceived there are no persuasive arguments for keeping the truth from us. We indeed have learned through scandals such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair that “much deceit for private gain masquerades as being in the public interest.” If the public is ever to trust and approve of our government again a dialogue must be opened on the subject of discretion versus deception for the public good. The longer the American public is deceived, and especially knowingly deceived, the less attachment and loyalty people will have to the country. But is this sense of “gennaion” and these “noble lies” actually a violation of our rights as citizens implicating an “unwarranted” use of power or is a public forum on the issue of deception a right that we do not have and instead need to fight for?

It is easy to view the government’s use of power, discretion and deception as unwarranted in light of most people’s view of democracy as a government “by the people, for the people.” But upon closer inspection, a government “by the people, for the people” is not necessarily protected. In fact, this common definition of democracy is not found in the Constitution, but in President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” While the founding fathers revolted against the absolute power and “tyranny” of King George and instituted the balance of power between the executive, judicial and legislative branches as a combatant against absolute power, did they protect the right of the people to govern? With the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution and the institution of a voting and citizen supported democracy of elected officials it is easy to assume that the Founding Fathers viewed all people equally. Yet we know this is not entirely true because the only people who could vote in the late eighteenth century were white male landowners (wealthy). It seemed to be that the founding fathers also had the concept of “gennaion” ingrained in their thought. They wanted to protect the power of the people, but only in so far as those people were of elite status.

This idea of the “noble elite” and “highminded”and “wellbred” is apparent in some of the more important documents in this nation’s history. In Federalist Paper 68, James Madison makes it clear that government and other important decisions should be made by the “most capable.” As an example of protecting an important decision against the stupidity of the electorate, the “College of Electors” was created and instituted to ensure a selection of a President approved of by the “noble elite.” Known today as the Electoral College, the results of the Presidential elections today are still in the hands of 538 “electors.” While most electors follow a winner takes all format of electoral votes following the majority vote of the public, in most states the elector is legally free to cast electoral votes however they wish free of penalty or illegal charge. This allows for the possibility of the electoral college and the “noble elite” to possibly override the public’s choice for Presidency at any time. While this power has not been taken advantage of and corrupted, the possibility and right of the government still exist in this regard. But then again this loophole has not needed to be tested because there have been no Presidential candidates in modern history who had a legitimate shot of winning the election who did not also already belong to the “noble elite.” As in the past this “noble elite” is still constructed of people made noble by birth or by “training” through education. Nevertheless, it appears as if the public has indeed been duped into overestimating their rights.

Sissela Bok is correct in stating that the public should no longer stand for the bypassing of consent of the governed in order to be able to hold government leaders accountable to corruption, whether it be a “noble lie” or not. These “noble lies” have come in the form of both self-interest for protection or self-interest for gain, but it is time for the government to have the people’s interest as priority. This change can be started by calling for an open discussion of political deception, but it is important to acknowledge that although the government has acted in deception and corruption at times, that these actions are not necessarily unwarranted as the noble elite are protected by history and our own founding fathers. Instead, the public and the people need to rise up and fight for equality and representation to combat corruption. In order to make our democracy truly a government “for the people and by the people” we must fight and advocate to have our voice heard and to gain the right of consent through Constitutional change.

In November 2009, I was blessed with an opportunity to participate in a weekend-long “School for Conversion” hosted by the New Monastic communities in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ. I had learned about the communities through reading Shane Claiborne’s “Irresistible Revolution” in 2006 and desired an opportunity to interact with and learn from the folks there from that point on. My hope was made tangible for three days last November, when I saw to a great extent what it looks like to actually live out the Good News of Christ. The entire weekend was, and continues to be, formative for us as we develop our orthodoxy and orthopraxis for church planting. But, especially moving was the capstone of the weekend; attending Mass at the Sacred Heart Parish in Camden on November 22, 2009, which marked the last Sunday in the church calendar.

Never having been to a Catholic Mass, aside from weddings and wakes, I was struck by this church’s passion for shining the light of Christ in the darkest parts of their city and their eagerness to do so as a part of their Sunday Mass. As the following Sunday would mark the beginning of Advent (the Christian season of expectation and anticipation in preparation for the coming of Christ) and a new year for the church, Sacred Heart chooses to use the final Sunday of the liturgical year to remember all of those who have been murdered in the city of Camden over the previous year. During the service, I learned 37 people had been murdered in Camden from November 23, 2008 through November 22, 2009.

Sacred Heart’s pastor of over thirty years, Father Michael Doyle, read the name of each one of the victims aloud, followed by their age and cause of death. Each name called was met by a family member of the deceased, with their loved one’s name around their neck and a candle in hand. As the family member walked forward, the Easter Candle lit their own and they remained standing at the front of the church. For victims without family present, a surrogate family member was appointed by the church and they too would walk forward, light the candle of remembrance and stand up front. The majority of the relatives who had lost someone to a violent death were not members of the church, but were present this Sunday because of the church’s invitation to remember and honor their brothers and sisters.

I vividly recall how badly my heart wanted to shut down and stop empathizing with the families as the pain felt too great. I could only listen to three or four names called consecutively before beginning to weep. I would then block out the next few names out of necessity, before forcing my spirit open to become present again in the shared suffering. Particularly grievous were the names of the teenagers killed by gun violence and the names of the women and one elderly man whose lives were prematurely ended by violent beatings. The sight of those 37 people with lit candles silently and visually embodying the dead is an image seared in my mind.

I decided then I would pray for the city of Camden faithfully over the next year and specifically that the number of murders would be less in 2010. I prayed every day upon returning home. For about a week and a half. Then the Holidays preoccupied my time and my petitions to God became increasingly more sporadic until my Camden experience grew further away and my passionate prayers flickered out.

Clara primes a pump on the Delaware with Philadelphia in view across the river

Over this past summer, I began praying again as I relayed my experience at Sacred Heart last Fall to a brother in Christ and we spoke about the possibility of meeting up in Camden in November 2010 to expose our own families to the spiritual and physical realities of the city hoping to again light the fire. Jaime was on board as she had sacrificed to allow me to go to Camden last year and had not had a chance to experience the beauty of God’s work in Camden. We decided we would bring the kids, despite the anticipated eight hour round trip drive. I contacted the incredible family I stayed with in 2009, who live across from Sacred Heart in Camden, and they confirmed that the church would again be facilitating their annual candle lighting ceremony on November 21, 2010.

We got up at 5:30 am on the morning of the 21st, packed the kids in the car and made good time on our morning commute, arriving in Camden in just over three hours as traffic was nearly non-existent on this Sunday before Thanksgiving. Since we arrived ahead of schedule, we stopped at a little park on the Delaware River with a view of the Philadelphia skyline and let the kids get some energy out before church. Both kids had a great time running up and down the fishing pier where a water pump was discovered and utilized to bring up mucky river water endangering all church outfits.

We checked in with our friends Timothy and Cheryl and their 17 month old daughter, the inspiring Mennonite family who were my gracious hosts last Fall, and then we embarked on a walk around the block before church. We stopped by the Poet’s Walk on Jasper Street where a small brick alleyway has been laid bearing the names of beloved authors and poets. In the center of the small courtyard stands an elevated millstone containing an actual brick from James Joyce’s home in Ireland. The piece is a part of the James Joyce Seats of Learning project which plans to place 63 small monuments incorporating a brick from Joyce’s home in public locations all over the world. I was particularly endeared to a small rock on the millstone on which “Shalom” was inscribed, proclaiming for all the neighborhood God’s conciliatory work of recovery and restoration occurring in Camden. Though the American Empire has largely abandoned Camden, God’s presence is felt here in the community gardens and outdoor frescoes created by His church and intentional communities of His people. A people committed to being active in God’s present Kingdom, the light meeting the dark.

Shepard makes his own rock contribution to the James Joyce Seat of Learning in Camden.

We then headed over to Sacred Heart to the alarm of at least one parishioner who saw Jaime, 31 weeks pregnant at the time, and feared we had mistakenly come to visit a week early as the first Sunday of Advent is reserved for the blessing of expectant mothers. Quite a different experience and service from the heartbreaking goodbyes to the deceased we were about to experience. We assured the young usher that we knew what we were in for and found seats as well as some familiar faces from last year’s service.

Father Doyle opened the Mass by noting that this past liturgical year saw 38 murders in Camden, an increase of one over last year, as two more victims were tragically murdered in just the previous week. Father Doyle expounded upon the injustice in Camden, reporting that in 2010 thus far, London, a city of 7.7. million, has recorded 11 murders, while Camden, population 79,000 has a death toll of 34. The vast majority of Camden murders are a result of gun violence as the tough New Jersey firearms laws are superseded by the ease in which handguns can be purchased in bulk in Philadelphia and trafficked into Camden just across the river.

An annual study released by the CQ Press perennially lists Camden among the most dangerous cities in the United States, topping the list in 2003, 2004 and 2008. The 2010 list, released on the day of our visit, cited Camden as the second most dangerous city in the US over the past year based on FBI crime statistics tracking the number of violent crimes per 100,000 residents (St. Louis, Detroit, Flint and Oakland round out the top five, while New Haven and Hartford checked in at numbers 18 and 19 respectively). While Camden’s violent crime rates actually decreased slightly in most categories over the past year, little comfort can be taken as the city is currently considering laying off half of its 375 police officers in the coming year due to economic difficulties.

Father Doyle again read the names, ages and causes of death of the murder victims. Rather than attempting to further explain, I decided to provide the list of people violently killed and challenge you not to skip over it, but to read each name. Can you imagine 38 people being murdered in the city where you live this year? Neither can I.

1. Rashon Graham, 33, 12-8-09, Shot to death
2. Marcus Corbett, 33, 12-13-09, Shot to death
3. Rashan Brown, 24, 12-14-09, Shot to death
4. Brian Gaither, 12-30-09, Shot to death
5. Nakeith Selby, 31, 1-1-10, Shot to death
6. Lemuel Robinson, 22, 1-14-10, Shot to death
7. Jamal Burgess, 33, 1-20-10, Shot to death
8. Maurice Crowley, 35, 1-26-10, Shot to death
9. Kathyleen Trimble, 35, 2-9-10, Strangled to death
10. Muriah Huff, 18, 2-25-10, Beaten/Strangled to death
11. Michael Hawkins, 23, 2-25-10, Beaten/Shot to death
12. Anthony Ross, 16, 3-7-10, Shot to death
13. Jamil Burks, 23, 4-25-10, Shot to death
14. Simere Peoples, 20, 4-27-10, Shot to death
15. Brandon Robinson, 22, 5-1-10, Shot to death
16. Eric Laws, 31, 5-30-10, Shot to death
17. Eric Cabrera, 18, 5-31-10, Shot to death
18. Avner Daniels, 32, 6-5-10, Shot to death
19. Geovany Vasquez, 32, 6-11-10, Shot to death
20. Dajuan Calloway, 26, 6-16-10, Shot to death
21. Seneca Brown, 31, 6-27-10, Shot to death
22. Kevin Archie, 50, 6-30-10, Shot to death
23. Lawanda Strickland, 31, 7-10-10, Strangled to death
24. Kory Johnson, 18, 8-1-10, Shot to death
25. Daryn Kelly, 26, 8-3-10, Shot to death
26. Joshua Mendoza, 33, 8-9-10, Shot to death
27. Usama Eason, 25, 8-9-10, Shot to death
28. Julius Davis, 47, 8-20-10, Shot to death
29. Bryasia Pitts, 16, 9-10-10, Shot to death
30. Earl Clary, 29, 9-27-10, Shot to death
31. Tyree Thomas, 24, 10-1-10, Shot to death
32. Bernadette Teamoh, 29, 10-1-10, Stabbed to death
33. Marcell Young, 25, 10-26-10, Shot to death
34. Antonio Harvey, 23, 10-30-10, Shot to death
35. Tyree Strickland, 20, 10-31-10, Shot to death
36. Lou Lytle, 36, 11-2-10, Stabbed to death
37. David Bolding, 57, 11-15-10, Shot to death
38. Julio Arroyo Jr., 24, 11-19-10, Shot to death

The average age of the victims was 28. Five of those killed this past year were teenagers. Four out of the six people not killed by handguns, were female and died from severe beatings, strangulation and stabbings. I couldn’t help but think of a recent training I completed at work on domestic human trafficking and how girls coerced into prostitution have an average life expectancy of just seven years from the time they begin working.

I did not become as emotional this time around, in part because I was attempting to watch Clara and Shepard throughout the Mass, both of whom did well but became antsy toward the end of the service. Upon thinking of the blessings of my wife and kids and the positive changes we have experienced over the past year, including the expectation of our third child in January 2011, I was re-energized in my goal to pray for Camden and for God’s healing of the city and ask for your prayers as well.

The Fishers were not the only ones to experience blessings of change over the past year, as one couple from the Camden community welcomed their first child in the Spring and a couple from the Simple Way community in Philadelphia recently announced their engagement. It was a breath of fresh air to interact with the brothers and sisters in the communities and to experience their passion for God as well as their practical advice for ministering in an inner-city environment. In was encouraging to hear that despite the many difficulties that continue to face these families, that their young children have been an asset to their ministry, opening new avenues to other young parents and children in the neighborhood.

But questions still remain and the work ahead has no end in sight. Camden was once a booming industrial town during World War II, but white flight and the loss of jobs handed down environmental disasters in superfund toxic waste sites, polluted air and contaminated water. The physical state of Camden is illustrated well by the following statement from a seventh grade Camden student immediately following 9/11, “I’m not afraid because if the terrorists fly over Camden, they’ll think they have done it already.” Can these young New Monastic families continue to raise their kids in such an environment? In a community with rampant handgun violence? Would I be willing to do the same if called by God to do so? These families do not claim to have all the answers, but do believe Camden is the type of place Jesus would hang out and so they stay, they work, they pray, they serve. And it’s a beautiful thing, this living the gospel out in all of its tension. They consistently claim Christ as Lord in their actions, not just their words and I find I cannot learn enough from them. Road trip anyone?