Camden, NJ, is the poorest and by some accounts the most dangerous city in the United States.
“The city is busily cannibalizing itself in a desperate bid to generate revenue. Giant scrap piles rise in hulks along the banks of the Delaware. The piles, filled with discarded appliances, rusted filing cabinets, twisted pipes, old turbines and corrugated sheet metal, are as high as a three- or four-story house, and at their base are large pools of brackish water…
Despite Camden’s bleakness, despite its crime and its deprivation, despite the lost factory jobs that are never coming back—despite all this, valiant souls somehow rise up in magnificent defiance. In a room across the street from Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where meals are provided for the homeless on Saturdays, a group of African-American women bow their heads over a table and hold hands. They are led by Lallois Davis, 67, a heavyset woman who radiates an indomitable, unbroken spirit.
‘The poor have to help the poor,” Davis says, “because the ones who make the money are helping the people with money’…
Father Michael Doyle, an Irish priest, has been in the Sacred Heart parish for thirty-five years. He has witnessed the violence of poverty devastating his congregation. Father Doyle was a member of the Camden 28, a group of left-wing Catholics and anti–Vietnam War activists who in 1971 raided the city’s draft board to destroy files. He was sent to Camden as punishment by church leaders who disapproved of his activism.
‘Today’s a very hard time to be poor,’ says Father Doyle, seated in the church rectory. ‘Because you know you’re poor. You hear people my age get up and say, ‘We were poor. We put cardboard in our shoes.’ We talk like that. But we didn’t know we were poor. Today you do. And how do you know you’re poor? Your television shows you that you’re poor. So it’s very easy to build up anger in a, say, a high-voltage kid of 17. He knows he’s poor, he looks at the TV and all these people have everything and I have nothing. And so he’s very angry…. I’m talking about the violence that rises out of the marketing that shows the kid what he could have, creates a huge anger that explodes easily. That I discovered very quickly when I came to Camden. I discovered the anger was so near the surface, you just rub it and it explodes. And there’s no respect for you if you have no money.’ “
A meditation by Fr. Michael Doyle from the “A Few Words” page of the Sacred Heart church website:
Life Leaped Out of Death
November is a wonderful month, especially in the Liturgy of Sacred Heart Church. It is the month of remembering those who have gone before us and are so near us still.
Our Shrine of Remembrance, which rises before us every Sunday until Advent, is a corkboard circle eight feet in diameter that is covered with a blue cloth and erected on the old high altar for each Mass. The edge of the big circumference is adorned with a garland of sprigs with lovely autumn leaves. In the center is a painting of the Pantocrator Christ embracing the dead represented in photos pinned up by families and covering the whole surface of the circle.
I love the ritual of incensing the Shrine of Remembrance at the beginning of Sunday Mass.
On Sunday, November 22, 2009, we called out the names of those murdered in the City of Camden since Sunday, November 23, 2008. The shocking number was 37 in this small City of 79,000 people. It is a number that is seven times worse than the worst City in Europe. A candle for each one of the murdered was lit from the Pascal Candle. A member of the murdered person’s family or a parishioner of Sacred Heart lit the candle and held it up, until 37 people were standing around the walls of our Church. We prayed. Then we sang: “I will raise you up.” This harsh harvest of God’s people and the harvest of nature (our Church was laden with the fruits of the Fall) were together. It was holy.
The evening Mass of Thanksgiving followed on Thursday.
Then on Saturday, the abundant drooping scene of cornstalks, wheat, pumpkins and leaves were moved out to be replaced by the lean evergreen touches of Advent. The first Advent candle was lit on Sunday. Then, after the homily, fifteen expecting mothers came forward and each was given a candle, lit from the Advent candle by an older woman. Then these words: “We bless you and the child within you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, and a loud Amen rose from the congregation for each one. The young mothers turned with their candles to face the people and Barbara Dever sang the Magnificat to them. Life leaped.
It was a scene as lovely as any other in this world.”