Camden, New Jersey
Last Saturday, 23 Sept, I was in Philadelphia for an event at Eastern University. It was held at the Campolo School of Social Studies, located in a downtown neighbourhood and not out at the main campus in leafy St David's. Indeed when I arrived at the given address in my taxi I at first thought I was in the wrong place, until I saw a young man in an Eastern T shirt holding a printed sign for the event I was due to attend.
Students at Eastern taking the urban studies courses have to spend at least on semester studying at this location, where the university has a floor in a new, but non-descript office building. Nearby is a local homeless shelter and the area bears all the makers of urban neglect.
While I had not consciously thought of it, I was not surprised that this centre named in honour of Tony Campolo would be located in such surroundings. It bears eloquent testimony to his commitments to social justice.
After the event I met up with Laura and Jonny Mcgreevy. Laura is the daughter of Michael and Kathy Whitley, Michael being the Board chair of CCCI and my boss. Jonny has been in Philadelphia for 5 years and is now a student at Westminster seminary while being a student intern at 10th Presbyterian. Laura has been here 2 years and teaches in a school in West Philly.
Jonny came to work here with Urban Promise, the urban mission agency founded by Tony Campolo. With them he worked in an education programme in Camden, NJ, where he and Laura also used to live. (One student at Duke reflected that far from being the Garden state, New Jersey is now something of the 'armpit of America! Not sure they would appreciate that at Princeton, but then it does seem that the state is in serious trouble socially and economically.)
Saturday afternoon we went on a tour of Camden, which is just across the Delaware river from Philadelphia. Home and final resting place of Walt Whitman - and of Campbells' soup, the first manufacturing site for Biro pens and when RCA records used to manufacture all their vinyl records. It is dominated by a tall city hall on which the verse of Whitman hailing this fine city is carved. Indeed in the early 20th century, Camden was the envy of Philadelphia, industrially successful and it quaint rows of houses.
What a contrast at the beginning of the 21st Century. Camden is one of the most socially deprived and poorest cities in the US. Driving around its streets it is not that you move from typically run down city centre to ghetto and then a more up market area before entering another ghetto. It is unremitting ghetto - block after block.
80,000 people in a living social hell. It is estimated that 10,000 enter Camden each day for to but their drugs or to pick up prostitutes. Camden is probably the most disturbing place I have ever visited - and for those who know me I have worked in India and visited the slums of cities there.
The reason I find it so disturbing is the total collapse of infrastructure that we associate with a modern society. This is social metldown. Where are the federal and state authorities? From what I hear they can be part of the problem. How can this evident failure in nation building occur in the heart of the world's richest nation? And if the US can't build functioning communities in its own back yard how can they claim to do so elsewhere? Is there something inherent in the US understanding of civic responsibility which actually brings about such appalling collapse?
Yet there is hope. At the event at Eastern, the catering was being provided by one of the successes of the Campolo programmes in Camden. A catering company using local young people. creating jobs and skills. They did a great job - good food and brilliant service. And from the school projects young men and women getting scholarships to college and a decent education. Home built by Habitat for Humanity in the areas bringing some dignity.
Jonny and Laura are no the only people from N Ireland to come and work in Camden. Others are still there. Part of the effectiveness of Tony's ministry in our community has been to draw young people to come and serve in this needy place. The US / N Ireland relationship is certainly mutual in a place like Camden, NJ.
The best thing of the day - the delight of Jonny and Laura seeing former pupils doing the catering at the event and the evident welcome they got from kids in Camden as we drove around. My respect and admiration - here's hoping they return to N Ireland with all they have learnt in Camden, New Jersey.