From the people of God in Camden, N.J.

By Alexander Ross Special Contributor Summer 2013 began with words from the Book of Worship prayed over me by my local church, Trinity UMC Fayetteville: All who take upon themselves the name of Christ are called into ministries of love and service by the example of Christ. As these members of our community begin their work among the people…. A few days later, I boarded a Greyhound and set off to go where it seemed Jesus was calling me: Camden, New Jersey, a city known for its gun violence and persistent poverty. Intentional community  I lived with the Camden Community Houses, a group of Christian friends and families who live, eat and pray together. Some friends of mine and I are starting something similar in Fayetteville. I first learned of the group when I read a book by Shane Claiborne, Jesus For President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. As I gleaned from it how discipleship shapes one’s political identity, I found a section titled “Practicing Resurrection,” about creating beauty out of rejected chaos: “We try to use the trash of a disposable society. We do a fair amount of dumpster diving, and at most of our potlucks you can find food labeled ‘vegetarian,’ ‘vegan,’ or ‘rescued’ (meaning it came from the trash). In our gardens, you’ll find old refrigerators serving as compost bins, veggies growing out of toilets and tires, and gutted computers and TVs converted into flower pots. One of the most revolutionary practices you can participate in is growing your own food. Some of the kids here in the city see tomatoes growing in our gardens and they can’t believe their eyes. ‘You can’t eat that,’ they say, and we laugh and say, ‘Oh yes; that, my dear, is a tomato. They aren’t made in factories. They are God’s miracles.’ How can we fully love the Creator when we’ve grown so far from the creation?” Having read about these practices, I felt famous participating in their common life. One resident started a community farm program for the local youth, teaching an economy of food cultivation in the midst of poverty. To conserve energy, they water plants with stored rainwater, pumping it out with a stationary bicycle. Brilliant! Camden has a history of receiving the area’s “environmental bads” (the sewage treatment for Camden County; the incinerator; a licorice processor, which results in a burnt-peanut smell). Children grow up in the midst of this pollution, and the elderly acquire more illnesses. In Camden alone, there are two Superfund sites and a few Brownfields, sites we don’t have the technology to reclaim from pollution. Seeing hope  But there’s more to Camden. Like any city, it has real people: vulnerable, fragile persons who struggle to live in union with God and their neighbors. And some there, both rich and poor, have begun to recognize our common fragility. This is where I see hope—not just for Camden, but for the world. We mustn’t forget we are personally responsible for what happens everywhere, including Camden. When someone is killed, we must all remember that we nailed God to a cross; and, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”—including Arkansas (which does have a homeless population, doesn’t it?). Arkansas’ inability to address food insecurity offers no hopeful witness or example to the people of Camden. If anything, the Camden Houses Community is teaching the church in Arkansas to care for Christ in our neighbors. We’ll have to be creative, making new forms of dignified work as we realize the miracle of food coming up out of the ground and God’s vision for an entire created order resurrected, renewed and restored. We’ll have to bring our gifts into both big cities and small rural towns, and pray and dream with them where Christ is leading us. A group that predates the Camden Community Houses is Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Some of the community partners work with its Catholic school, and I worked with its community farm project. At each morning’s mass, the priest welcomes any who have been baptized in the name of the Trinity—breaking Catholic canon to invite Protestants to the table. The sharing in bread and wine at the table became a transformative part of my day: time stopped, and heaven was revealed in a tiny, ordinary wafer. I spent most of the summer teaching teens how to cook, primarily with food from the farms, which they worked on. Tuesdays and Thursdays we taught cooking and nutrition to 9- to 13-year-olds. One day another intern and I planned to give the children a tour of the gardens, but it rained, so we instead watched Dr. Seuss’s 1972 Lorax cartoon, a classic for teaching care for the environment. The story illustrates how resources are eroded and entire species wiped out when we aren’t good stewards of the earth. We weren’t sure how to facilitate discussion with children who were living with the consequences of the culture we identified with, so we decided to let them teach us. As the narrative progressed and resources were eroded, one young man had an epiphany. In the middle of the film he said, “This looks like Camden.” Go ‘there’  So how can I write about this city in New Jersey? Is it my role? My last week there, I asked friends what they tell people about it. One friend said, “I didn’t come here to help. I came here because my heart was awakened to something that would allow me to create what I want to create… I can paint poetry on the wall in Camden!” Her beautiful murals are little sanctuaries of God’s beauty, taking the world by surprise. Another said, “I tell them I was here.” Not that she was Camden’s savior or was making a difference, but that she simply went there because Jesus told her to. Isn’t that what the Gospel is about? The whole story of Jesus, from the nativity to the cross, is about God saying, “Tell them I was here.” In the deepest valley of our human suffering, there you will find God. So, my recommendation is to go “there.” You know where “there” is: any place where people are hurting. The place where people have stopped hoping. Maybe you are “there” right now. Maybe you are hurting. God raised Israel out of Egypt. God raised Jesus from the dead. When you get “there,” you have only one thing to do: ask the question, What is God going to do next? Ross is a student active in the University of Arkansas Wesley Foundation and is an intern at Trinity UMC Fayetteville’s Parish House Community.