Twenty-four years ago CBS 60 Minutes came to Sacred Heart and beamed the broken face of Camden to the nation. Among the many images projected, was a sign thirty square feet in size that we had nailed to a boarded up building near the church. It announced our mission: “WE CALL CAMDEN TO LIFE.” Well, we have been calling but sometimes we feel as hoarse as a town crier in a graveyard. Near the spot where the sign was, there is a small sign today. It is nailed to a cross, made from abandoned wood that we found in the littered lot that we annually clean up for the blessing of palm on Palm Sunday. Thus, the red cloth that drapes the old weather-beaten wood in the weeds. The lettering is dark red on faded white, like blood on a pavement. It reads “Heal Camden” and its urgent plea was beamed across America, coast to coast, to millions of people, on January 26, 2007. The program was ABC’s 20/20 with Diane Sawyer. Nothing short of a miracle in modern technology. But in another way, it is greater that the endurance of Isaiah’s words over the span of twenty-eight hundred uneasy years. Right into our own hearts and minds in 2007. Words like, “A little child shall lead them.”
Diane Sawyer, in a most magnificent way, enabled several little children, (only one four), to lead us, to lead the nation hopefully into new levels of realization. New levels of truth about ourselves. Truth about the extreme poverty of Camden, NJ. These little children of the light held us up to the glare of what poverty does to them. Filming took more than a year of ABC. The sight of their plight was devastating. The sound of their plea, heartbreaking. They live in the poorest city of the richest nation. Their 08 zip codes locate them in the richest state in the union. There is no way that any of us can avoid being shamed. I have worked here for almost forty years, and I am ashamed that I haven’t done more or screamed louder. I have seen poverty. I’ve seen the blood of too many murder victims on the sidewalks crying to God fro solutions. I have entered the morgue to identify little children burned to death. The faulty wires of poverty have trapped many a child in smoke and flame. The sad faces of poor little children haunt the heart. Thank God one never gets used to this.
Camden is a bankrupt city of 79,000 people with a big broken capital “B”. After his recent resignation, Randy Primas, the COO in the State takeover of the City, told me that the total annual amount of taxes collected In the City of Camden is just able to pa medical coverage on the city employees. Not a penny for a light bulb or a roll of toilet paper. In Camden, the mayor’s hat is not for the head, but for an outstretched hand. We have been reduced to a City of beggars at every level. Camden, I always say, is the best visual aid in America to show the world what is wrong here. It is a national disgrace, a county disgrace, and a State disgrace. Camden is the yardstick by which we measure America, the State of New Jersey, and Camden County, and by it we also measure the Diocese of Camden, the churches and the synagogues and especially ever high-profit making business enterprise in the Delaware Valley. This 20/20 piece should be required viewing for the President of the United States, the Senate and the Congress, every political and business person in the State of New Jersey and in Camden County. It is a searing sword that pierces the soul and, as old Simeon said in the bible, breaks open the heart.
Capitalism inherently has no compassion, but those who use the system are human being with head and heart and generally a good sense of compassion for little children. Let us never talk of “promoting freedom around the world” if we do not take care of terribly poor children around the corner in Camden.
These children deserve the nurture of beauty around them, but among them we have located the storage and treatment of the sewage of Camden County, the trash of the County, two prisons full of prisoners, lung lacerating industries, mountains of scrap, and diesel trucks with deadly emissions.
Dorothy Day always said that charity must be personal. We must give our own time, our own ideas, and our own money. I once had the privilege of listening to Present Vaclav Havel in Philadelphia. It was July 4th, 1994. He is a man of great inspiration. “It is I who must begin,” he says. “Once I begin, once I try – here and now, right wherever I am, not excusing myself. I suddenly discover to my surprise that I am neither the only one, nor the first, nor the most important one to have set out upon that road.”
“That road” is the road to justice for the people of Camden, New Jersey. Sometimes we don’t have the energy to be angry enough. It is hard to stand up when the wheels of progress, going someplace else, are running over your neck.
But the voices of the children on 20/20 are haunting me. They are the voices of many in this City. Little homeless Ivan Stevens, four years old, said: “sometimes, they’ll shoot when I sleep. I put the pillow over my head because to could be too loud.” He, with his mother, and his brother, have been sleeping on one chair for five months. (“Waiting for the World to Change” is the name of the 20/20 piece. I hope you say it on January 26th or since.) Poor little Ivan wants to be Superman, “somebody who will let me fly on their back.” When the chance for a house falls apart again, he says: “My heart is goin’ to be sad.”
It was a joy to me, and a sadness too, when I saw the beautiful face of Sacred Heart’s seventh grader, Alicia Santiago, on 20/20. She is 12 years old and wants to be a doctor. No one listening to her when she sang “This little heart of mine” to the nation could know the cost to her of that “little light”. She is the daughter of a mother who was far too young when she had her, and now has a job in a nursing home with ungodly hours. Alicia has to be ready and out the door at 4:30 a.m. to be taken with her younger brother and sister to their grandmother’s house in another part of Camden, and there they wait for school time to go to Sacred Heart. When asked by Diane Sawyer: “If you had a dream, you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?” Alicia answered: “That my mom would get a better job.” Diane Sawyer: “Alicia has a question for all the American kids, like those in Moorestown, (near Camden) who live such bountiful lives.” Alicia: “I want to know why they take all the money they for granted, and the nice stuff they have.” A good question for us all.
Alicia cares for her siblings, taking care of the home, helping for ailing grandmother, giving her insulin shots, etc. Says our principal, Janet Williams: “Alicia will break down now and then and will need a time out to regroup. Luckily, she will to us at school and feels loved and supported here.” In spite of everything, “she comes to school and shine everyday.” To the question: “what would make you happy in life?” Alicia wrote: “it would make me happy in life to see Camden cleaner and safer. It would make me happy to see the world a safe place. It would make me happy if people would be more compassionate towards homeless people.”
The little children showed us what was happening to them. They us fear, hunger, homelessness, ugly surroundings, gunshots, shattering scenes with an alcoholic parent, and addicted grandmother etc. etc. . any one of them enough to break the spirit. These children, as young as four and as old as seventeen, are crying out. They are crying out: “America come and help us to build this City and make it beautiful. We don’t need old clothes. We need new ideas. We need beauty around us. We need hope. We need investment that is more compassionate and less greedy.” I am sad today that young people are being asked to risk life and limb for uncertain purposes in Iraq and else where, but surely we can ask people to risk time and worked for the great purpose of saving the children of Camden.
I know that those who connect and try to help Camden will be blessed. It is a work of justice. Let’s connect many people. Send me five names and addresses.or more. It’s one small step. Let’s take it to Heal Camden.