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?

  1. April says:

    You’re far, far braver than I am. I find even San Diego to be too high risk to travel into if it can be avoided, but then my fear of cities is compounded by severe oversensitivity to the many sensory experiences so it’s intimidating even without the residents.
    Do you not also experience fear of humanity in dangerous places? After reading this, I can understand your spiritual goal, but not necessarily how it works compared to preservation instinct. Do you trust not to be harmed, or find the risk a worthwhile price for the spiritual rewards?

    This is a powerful idea, and vivid. It reminds me of a topic we’ve heard several times recently in sermons – the holiness of the disenfranchised, the poor, the weak, the hungry and the suffering. The spiritual starvation of the rich. That those who are physically the most comfortable are the least likely to seek and enrich their relationship with God. I can confirm this through observation, at least in part, and so find it interesting to consider. Why does suffering bring us closer to God?

    I don’t understand these human evils, the pain people deliberately inflict on one another. Camden will be in my prayers, weak as they are.

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