Editor’s Note: At the end of Mass yesterday in the Czech Republic, Pope Benedict directed these words to the young people in attendance, “Hope! This word, to which I often return, sits well with youth. You, my dear young people, are the hope of the Church! She expects you to become messengers of hope.” In a city that seems devoid of hope sometimes, De Sales Service Works (DSW) invites young people to come to Camden and offer hope to people who desperately need it. The work these young people do offers hope for the Church as she continues the mission of Christ to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). The blog entry that follows is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works. In this entry, Fr. Mike describes one aspect of DSW, high school service retreats in Camden.
This month DSW has begun hosting groups from the three local high schools sponsored by the Oblates: Salesianum in Wilmington, DE, Father Judge in NE Philadelphia and North Catholic in the Frankford section of Philadelphia.
Salesianum seniors were the first group to come for our Salesian service retreats. The retreat day is made up of a morning service period and afternoon discussion and prayer. This blog entry will describe the three service activities to give a taste of what some people involved in DSW are doing in the Camden community.
New Visions Day Shelter
On each retreat, fifteen students go with Salesianum’s Oblate campus minister Fr. Pat Kifolo to a “day shelter” three blocks away called New Visions. The director, Kevin Moran, meets them and guides them through a tour of operations at New Visions. This shelter offers services that many people from a middle-class background take for granted. Here there are laundry facilities, showers, a thrift store, and a large community room to relax and be off the street. Breakfast and lunch are served each weekday. In addition, because the people served here are either homeless or are shifting between rented rooms, abandoned houses, sleeping in doorways in the city or with various friends and family, New Visions serves as a stable mailing address. The shelter enables guests to receive government aid, veteran benefits, and bills—and any other mail which otherwise would not reach them.
Aside from addressing these base level needs, Kevin Moran and the New Visions staff make an effort to create a welcoming place for community to form, for people to get their bearings and to take steps in a positive direction. This may involve getting in to a program, moving toward a better self-image, or achieving personal goals. For many vulnerable people suffering from mental illness the shelter helps them keep their heads above water. The students participating in service for the morning contribute to this mission by listening to the guests, playing games and sharing community and humanity. In that real way they share the light of Christ—kindness, gentleness, and patience in a hard-edged, rough city.
Six students staff the cathedral’s sandwich ministry preparing bagged lunches: a sandwich, fruit, napkin and Salesian thought. Between 30 to 75 people come to our door each weekday for a sandwich or for canned goods from our food pantry. All the food is donated by parishioners and by St. Vincent de Paul groups from Our Mother of Consolation in Philadelphia & St. Thomas More here in New Jersey. The parish staff and volunteers usually make and offer the sandwiches, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the fall semester Salesinum seniors will do the honors. The nourishment provided by the sandwiches helps people in need, but I think it can be said that the human contact, marked by gentleness and humility, may be just as important. We often give people cards with a good thought from St. Francis de Sales printed on them. People seem glad for the optimistic insights from our saint.
The final group works on our “peace garden.” Camden fits the prototypical concrete/asphalt jungle one thinks of as a broken-down, inner city landscape. However, because there are so many vacant lots, there is a good amount of potential green space. Usually weeds and derelict trees dominate, but one neglected plot of earth is being transformed by the labors of students doing service here. Digging and planting may not seem like service the way talking to homeless people or preparing food does. But we try to make it clear that the gardens the young men are creating lift the spirits of people who live here—beauty and order replacing weeds, dead plants, trash and disorder. Beauty has a lot of power, and is not something that belongs only in wealthy areas. In addition, the students work with two homeless men, Ken and Luis, who give direction and share about their lives in the city.
There is so much to be learned here: observing, listening to people, taking it all in. One of the garden groups recounted how they were working: digging, clearing weeds and stumps, when a mother with her second grader hurried by, with a couple of the lunches prepared by their fellow Salesianum students, very late for school. The little girl made it clear that she did not want to go to school. Arguing with the child, the mother pointed to the guys doing the landscaping and said to the daughter, “If you don’t go to school, you’ll end up like them. Come on!” and she pulled her off toward the school. It was a funny, ironic comment since these seniors work hard at a good school and are deep into the task of college application and have a life full of options. We all got a laugh out of the irony. But on another level, the comment also highlighted the simple fact of human solidarity. Poor people, people with various mental illnesses, and those with addictions are not a separate species of human being—any of us could be in their shoes if some things were different about our lives. That awareness of unity and connectedness across very real differences is an insight many students have talked about. When you meet and talk to people who are poor or homeless or addicted, you are no longer dealing with abstract problems and issues but with people with stories, complexities and personalities. It is a gift to have the chance to realize this.
In the discussion that follows the service period, many students have also expressed a sense of awareness of blessing and a sense of gratitude, seeing their situation in contrast to the very visible privations here in Camden. The experience of service helps educate young people in ways that are not possible in the classroom. On top of the educational dimension, however, these students are making a concrete difference in the lives of many people in Camden.