Camden gets a bad rep. Well, to be fair, much of it is well-deserved: Camden is in fact a high-crime area with drug issues and overwhelming poverty. Regardless, it still gets a bad rep. If you talk to some people you’d be led to believe that it’s some godforsaken, dour land, the likes of which are found in Batman’s “Gotham City” or an American portrayal of the former Soviet Union. To some, Camden is simply a place of fear and sadness, as if crossing the Delaware River was akin to being touched by a Dementor.
In the last few days, I have experienced nothing but the contrary. Camden is a place of hope and rejoicing. It is a place where people take pride in their city and its future. It’s a place where people recognize the difficulties around them but take joy in the wonders as well.
Last Saturday, St. Anthony’s had its annual Festival in honor of the feast of St. Anthony of Padua. Trust me when I say that there were no sad faces in sight. Beginning with a procession of a statue of St. Anthony around the block and into the church, an almost full church gathered to celebrate their community with the breaking and sharing of bread. Nourished and refreshed, the celebration was just beginning. Awaiting them in the parking lot after mass was a DJ, water slide, bouncy castle, dunk tank, a host of kids games, and authentic food from five different countries. Throughout the day, a day that went until dark I might add, presentations were made thanking a retiring teacher and leaving pastor, dance performances were given by children and adults alike, and police officers and city leaders showed up, not for enforcement or protection, but simply to join the party. (One police officer was convinced to play basketball with the kids, and, wearing his full jacket and belt, made their day by successfully dunking on the 8 foot high basket.) It was a fun-filled day with hundreds of people in attendance dancing, eating, laughing, and playing games.
But wait, there’s more!
After a few days to recover, the party started again yesterday with a two-part celebration. The first was in honor of the 18th anniversary of Francis House, a recreation and prayer center on our campus for those with HIV/AIDS. For 18 years now, those with HIV/AIDS have found a welcoming home to receive a warm meal, judgement-free fellowship, and the support of a close-knit family. People from all over came to the church for a prayer service in the morning where those who had died from HIV/AIDS were remembered and those who had made Francis House possible were thanked. It was a mix of great joy and sorrowful remembrance, a time to mourn the loss of those gone before us but to celebrate the ways in which their lives had been given meaning by others. After a few prayers and songs, our time ended the way any good Franciscan events ends: food! Filling up every square foot of the house, the friars, guests, and volunteers piled into the house to eat and laugh with one another, sharing stories and a great time.
Enough celebration for one day? I think not!
After two years of petitions, meetings, phone calls, and angering defeats, the city of Camden finally installed lights in the park near the church and school. Once called “the most depressing park in the country”, Von Nieda Park has been completely transformed in recent years, due almost entirely to the Student Leaders of Saint Anthony School. In the last three years, they have successfully petitioned the city for nets on the basketball rims, trash cans and recycling bins throughout the park, fences to keep out dangerous four-wheelers, and regular cleanups, not to mention their own efforts to paint the benches and a mural. Last night, the whole neighborhood came out to inaugurate their latest victory. Joined by the mayor, city councilmen, the Camden County Parks leaders, police officers, fire fighters, and a representative from every news outlet in the area, including Telemundo and Univision, the whole neighborhood had a party. Food was given for free, basketball games were played on all four courts (some of which included police officers and friars), music was blasted, and speeches were given. As the sun set, the lights were dramatically flipped on, and light kept the night alive. If you’d like to read more, there are articles here, here, and here.
Camden may be an unsafe place with a lot of poverty. Many would see it as a hopeless city. Don’t tell that to the children that were instrumental in fixing up this park. No, to them, Camden is a place of hope and a place of change. As one student said last night to everyone gathered, “We’re a faith-based community, and we must always hope for a brighter future for Camden. But that doesn’t tell the whole story because Camden has brightened so much in the last few years, we’ve accomplished so much. Our present is bright.” Well said. There’s still a lot of work yet to be done, but Camden is a place worth celebrating. St. Anthony’s certainly is.