Get your hands out of your pockets,” the cop yelled.
My friends and I put our hands in the air, and I showed the policeman my ID card.
Though we weren’t doing anything wrong, I cannot blame the cop for stopping us. After all, what were we doing outside of a sketchy bodega in a dilapidated area of North Camden?
We explained that we were spending our Spring Break in Camden, New Jersey, and the cop asked whether we had misspelled Cancun when planning our trip.
I was in Camden in association with Temple’s Newman Center, which is the Catholic community on Main Campus, on a service trip through DeSales Service Works. We handed out sandwiches to the homeless and the hungry, worked with kids at a local school, and met with people dealing with drug and alcohol addictions. We went there to serve the community, but it was actually the community that served us.
There were 32 homicides in Camden in 2014, which is a massive improvement compared to previous years, but still nine times the national average. In addition, the city of 77,000 people is the poorest in the United States according to Census statistics that indicate around 42.5 percent of the population is living in poverty.
The poverty is not hidden in Camden – it is visible on the surface. The city feels empty, with some blocks almost entirely vacant. Boarded-up buildings are the norm, rather than the exception. Needles and drug paraphernalia are scattered along the sidewalk – even in playgrounds and parks.
When we arrived at the house where we would be staying, Father Mike McCue, the spiritual director at DeSales Service Works, gave us a tour of the neighborhood. After he showed us the spot where two men were recently murdered – it was around the corner from where we would be staying – I asked myself why I could not just spend spring break in my cozy house in Northeast Philadelphia.
Camden was a scary place at first glance – maybe even after multiple glances – but I soon learned that there is a resilient hope that lives in this city. Two experiences demonstrated that hope, and, while I speak only for myself, I feel that these sentiments ring true with many of the 16 students who went on the trip.
First, it was our adventure working with the kids during the after-school program at Holy Name School. What was amazing was the students, especially the younger students, adored us. They flocked to us like metal to a magnet, even though we had done little to deserve their admiration besides show up.
A child told one Temple student that his parents had to buy him a birthday gift two weeks before his birthday because they could only afford it at the beginning of the month. That is a struggle that most of us in the group did not understand at that age. The high school graduation rate in Camden hovers around 50 percent, according to newjersey.com. Job prospects for dropouts are low, and many end up on the street selling or doing drugs. The unfortunate fact is that many of those on the street had shared the same hope as those students at Holy Name.
Another experience that really stood out to me was when I and a few others attended an Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous (AA/NA) meeting at the Last Stop Clubhouse. The attendees greeted us, though we were outsiders, and explained their experiences with drugs and alcohol.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the meeting was that alcoholics and addicts are human. Of course they are human, but we do not always treat them that way. Addicts are marginalized from society and are often offered little sympathy. However, by talking to the people at the AA/NA gathering, I came to see these people as courageous warriors in a fight against addiction.
The entire trip altered my perspective on Camden and places with similar characteristics. I expected to see poverty and misery, but what I saw was hope and pride. We were welcomed at every turn, and thanked for all that we did. Ultimately, I came on the trip to make an impact on Camden, but Camden ended up making an impact on me.
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.