Blog: 2008

Tuesday, December 30

“Hey Mr. C., Miss Julie, look I got my passport in the mail yesterday.” Shahad was beaming as he thrust the official document with its golden imprinted seal on the cover towards us. “I can go anywhere in the world now, right?” “Well, almost”, I replied, realizing the significance the small important looking booklet had for him. Shahad and five of his classmates will be traveling to the Mexican State of Michoacán in February, 2009 to do field research as part of their high school curriculum. 

Since September Shahad and his classmates have been part of a new and exciting elective course in our small UrbanPromise high school. The year long course, called “Journeys”, meets twice each week for a total of 3 hours. We’ve been studying the Monarch Butterfly and its migration to winter sanctuaries by using various approaches.

• From a historical and geographic approach, the course takes us into a study of both animal and human migration…we’ve explored topics on the “Great Migration” of African Americans relocating from the south to the northern cities of the United States during the first half of the 20th century. We have looked at issues of illegal immigration and the relationship of the United States and its Mexican neighbor. Our exploration of Mexican history has opened the door to studying pre-Columbian native Aztec and Purepecha cultures. We have also been learning about Mexico’s post-Spanish conquest and contemporary history.

• In the sciences, we studied the life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly while raising, tagging, collecting data and releasing them. We have explored issues of climate change, habitat loss, deforestation, endangered species through field trips to Cape May and the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Students have read, researched and then debated positions centered on environmental conservation/preservation, environmental injustice and economic development.

• In language and visual arts, the Journeys class is learning to observe not only with the eyes of a scientist but also the creative eyes of an artist. They have taken the time to sit quietly in the garden sketching plants and insects alike. They have created poetic verse, learning to wordsmith the myriad of new words and ideas that are revealed through their studies.

Our upcoming trip to the Transvolcanic Mountains of Michoacán will provide our students the opportunity to do field research on pre-selected subjects and to meet with rural Mexican school students who are also studying the Monarch Butterfly and its migration north. Our travels will take us to Mexico City. We will see the art work of Diego Rivera, often described as the greatest Mexican painter of the 20th century. We will visit the ancient ruins of Tzintzuntzan, center of Purepecha culture; Teotihuacan and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon including the Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec capital city.

In many ways it is the magnificent and miraculous “Danaus Plexippus” (Monarch Butterfly) that is our passport to learning as six young students from UrbanPromise Academy prepare for the journey of a lifetime. This small yet grand, fragile yet incredibly resilient creature has led us to a world beyond our classroom, a world beyond our small urban garden in Camden, New Jersey.

Peace, Like a Garden in Camden

Jim Cummings

Sunday, November 9

Hope Mead, a 19 year old artist from Freeville, New York, who spent this past school year as a Mission Year intern with Urban Promise graced our campus this summer with a beautiful mosaic tile wall mural.

During her first weekend in Camden last Fall she encountered the work of tile mural artist Isaiah Zagar and fell in love with his work. Tagging along with him for a few days, he put her to work and then commissioned her to “go out and make art in the world!”
Volunteering at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, just down the street from Urban Promise, her first mural took shape with the art students there, a 6 foot by 25 foot depiction of student faces along a hallway. Raising money for all her own supplies, she then was inspired to work with our StreetLeaders this summer to add her colorful designs to the wall along our parking lot.

With help from fellow intern, Krista Reimer and our hardworking StreetLeaders, Hope has made her mark not only in the hearts of her students and coworkers, but in a very concrete way by beautifying our surroundings. Hope is currently a freshman studying art education at Messiah College in Grantham, PA.

Hope, and thank you for sharing your gifts with us!

Saturday, August 16

Harvesting for the Camden City Farmers Market. The carrots looked great and were a big seller, thanks to the UPA biology class who planted them in the garden back in April. The garlic that was also planted by the UPA biology class back in November finally emerged from curing in the shed after being harvested back in June by Nelly and Jorge. A lot of the cherry tomatoes unfortunately had split from being over watered by the rain storms last night. But all in all a good taste of small business management was experienced at the downtown Camden Farmers Market along with learning more about food in the Camden community.

The garden was planted more as an educational garden instead of a production garden, so it will probably be the only time this season UPA students will be showing off their nutritious produce to the Camden community. But hopefully the program will continue and grow...

Wednesday, August 6

Tyrone (camper), David (camper), Mary (UrbanPromise Intern) and Nomaris (camper) enjoy another fun filled day at UrbanPromse's Camp Spirit.


It was testimony time at our weekly worship service with the summer interns. The
impressive and energetic young people, who volunteer to help UrbanPromise, always enjoy the time when they get to share the events of the prior week. There are always lots of laughs and spontaneous shouts of encouragement. 

This year was different when Mary struggled to her feet. “The doctor gave me
the bad news eight days before I was supposed to come to Camden.”

Everyone became quiet. Mary is one of our 45 college interns who volunteered this
summer. She is a dean’s list student at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California studying Social Work. She had our attention.

“My doctor told me that my joints were disintegrating rapidly—knees and ankles primarily. My muscular dystrophy would allow me only about 5-hours day on my feet--or less. I would need periods of rest.”

For the past week our staff and children had all watched Mary struggle to walk around the UrbanPromise campus leaning heavily on her cane. But Mary would not be deterred. and she never complained.

“I thought about not coming to Camden,” she continued, “wondering what value I would be to an organization that works with such energetic kids. But I really believed I was supposed to come! So God opened doors and I sensed I had important work to do; besides, my friends, my church, and my family were all very supportive of my making the trip.”

The demands on our summer interns are strenuous. Our young men and women work long hours with energetic kids, walk long city blocks in the hot sun and humidity, and stay up until the wee morning hours planning exciting activities for our kids. Then they bunk in our cramped row homes and apartments (without air conditioning!)--not
the best conditions for someone whose health is in decline.

“I can’t coach basketball. I can’t walk kids home. I can’t lead the charge at the swim trips,” she continued. “But, I’m delighted that the children have begun to ask me questions about my cane and my limp. The conversations we have are amazing—conversations about faith and pain and God, and, often, about courage.”

“I now realize that God is working through what I thought were my weaknesses. Children in Camden relate to my vulnerabilities.”

Certainly, Mary’s testimony about courage and perseverance was a challenge to all of us last Sunday night. She reminded me and the others how God turns our perceived weaknesses into amazing opportunities to move beyond the superficial and connect with young people at a deeper level—a level that can not be reached if there is no trust, no respect, or no ability to identify.

For the last six weeks Mary and her colleagues have been running our day camps, coaching basketball teams, mentoring those who are still shaky in their school work, teaching bible verses, loving and sometimes just listening. Interns like Mary receive no financial compensation; they pay their own travel expenses, and they work long hours in South Jersey’s heat and humidity. I’m sure you’ll agree with me, they are contemporary saints.

Dr. Bruce Main
President, UrbanPromise

Saturday, July 26
It's amazing how much fun kids can have with a couple of buckets and some water!

Wednesday, July 23

Donor Profile: Tom & Diane Samuel

Tom Samuel grew fond of the students at The CamdenForward School after attending and representing First Presbyterian Church in Moorestown at several Partner Appreciation Days. Tom and his wife, Diane, decided they wanted to give the kids at school an experience that they would treasure for years to come. The experience was a week at the YMCA Camp Ockanickon in Medford. Not only did Tom and his wife provide two one-week scholarships to our kids, they also shared their idea with their friends, neighbors, and mission committee and was able to pull together additional scholarships.
In total, they were able to offer eight one-week camp scholarships to the kids at the CamdenForward School. 

When the kids returned on Friday afternoon, two boys and their Mom’s visited my office. Josh and Chris could hardly contain themselves, bursting with story after story. Their Mom’s just beamed with delight. The boys told me all about sleeping in the cabin, swimming in the lake, catching frogs, archery and rifle shooting with magnets.

The camp experience was a truly remarkable one for some kids from the Camden area – one they are excited to share with others – one they long to go to the next year. I, along with the kids and parents, thank Tom and Diane and the others who gave a gift that will be long remembered.

For more information about becoming a partner contact Joy at

Tuesday, July 15

 Gibozi Mphanzi, Robert Manda, Zamumtima “Za” Chijere, Sullivan Kandulu, Tinashe Saka


Robert, with a solemn look on his handsome face bluntly said, “I just couldn’t do it!” 

Robert Manda was attending the African Bible College in Malawi where he lived. He had volunteered, because of his country’s famine, to help distribute food—small bags of grain and rice for desperate, starving families who had been in line for days to receive help.

“In the midst of all the people’s chaos and need I received a call from my supervisor,” Robert explained. “He was in a different region of the country doing other relief work. He instructed me not to give out all the bags of food, because there were transportation problems and there was a good chance the next shipment would not arrive until next week. I just couldn’t do it—what good would the food have done if everyone had died?”

He paused. “I disobeyed the order. But guess what? The food arrived the next day. Yes!”

When it comes to food, the biggest decision many of us have to face is whether or not to eat the last three Oreos in the package.  But experiences like Robert’s, are events that shape faith and define character.

Robert returned to Malawi last week along with Gibozi, Zamumtima (Za), Tinashe, and Sullivan. As they begin three new children and youth ministries, each of them will confront the desperate state of children and their families in Malawi. All three ministries include a feeding program, understanding that eating a balanced meal and having a full stomach are key to a child’s ability to learn, grow, and survive. The next time you are trying to decide how many Oreos to eat, please remember our friends in Malawi and the children they are serving.

For more information on how to support UrbanPromise Malawi please contact: Lindsey Lewis at 856-661-1700 ext. 18 or

Tuesday, July 15

Wednesday, July 9, was a very special evening at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia as artist Faith Ringgold invited 10 select art students from The Camden Forward School to be her guests at a lecture she was giving in coordination with an exhibit of her work this summer.

This was the culmination of a series of lessons on African American artist taught this past school year by teachers Julie Kring-Schreifels and Trish Maunder in coordination with Faith Ringgold’s Anyone Can Fly Foundation. Each student was presented with an autographed book by Ms. Ringgold.

The students felt honored to have been a part of such a wonderful opportunity to meet this prominent artist and educator whose work is so vital to the history of American contemporary art.

For more information about the art program contact Julie at

Thursday, July 10

The trip had been in the planning for over a year; it was the Senior Rite of Passage. We left Camden early in the morning for the seven hour drive to the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The five guys had just finished their final exams that week and would be graduating from the UrbanPromise Academy one week from today. Braheem, Kyrus, Mark, Mike and Terron have been part of the UrbanTrekkers program since they were freshman. During their high school years we have traveled to some incredible places…but this trip was going to be something very special, perhaps the last time we would all travel together.

My friend Dr. Bob Harris was joining us. Bob knew the guys well and had been a big part of planning for the trip. The Adirondacks region is known for its natural lakes and spectacular mountain scenery. Our itinerary would begin with the hike into Marcy Dam to set up a base camp the night before the twelve mile round trip to the summit of New York’s highest peak, Mount Marcy. The climb up Marcy was grueling; it was hot and we were in the height of black fly season. Since the black flies were feasting on any exposed skin we put on head nets for partial relief. Arriving at the summit gave us all a sense of accomplishment. From our panoramic 360 degree view we scanned the vastness of mountains and lakes below. Standing there I was filled with excitement for what we had just done and there was a sense of mystery for what would unfold.

After the first two days the challenging hike of Mount Marcy was behind us and we were ready to reveal the next challenge. Bob, an expert climber, had hired a professional guide to give us a course in rock climbing 101. After hiking an extremely steep route we arrived at the base of the rock wall. The guys were in awe as they stared up at seventy vertical feet of shear rock before them. Again the black flies were having a feeding frenzy on any exposed skin; the head nets and Deet helped but we were still fresh meat. With the proper equipment and the expert guide the guys soon felt confident as they scaled the rock before them. Climbing is physical but probably even more cerebral…we were pushing them and they were amazing!

The twenty-four hour camp solo is what they’d been planning and anxiously waiting for since last fall…the final piece of the passage. Bob had invited an old friend to join us in our camp. Kirby was a seasoned back country camper and I was looking forward to hearing his stories. It was day four. We had rented a small outboard boat to transport each guy to their own small wilderness island in Lower Saranac Lake. The guys were ready…they each had a tent, sleeping bag, camp stove, small bag of food with water, a journal/pen…oh, and a whistle just in case.  

In preparing for the Rite of Passage and the Solo our conversations were reaching deep within each of the guys. They all grew up in Camden without fathers or even grandfathers in their lives and we wanted to talk about becoming men, husbands and fathers. We wanted to contrast our culture to our Christian faith and to define how that might look for each of them. They had to write a mission statement, something personal for themselves and also write a letter. The letter would be written by their future fifty year old self and give advice to guide them on their life’s journey.


I knew a rite of passage ceremony would need its own symbolic sacrifice ritual. The night before the solo we asked each one the guys to share with the group something personal they wanted to leave behind as they passed from adolescence to young adult. It was a poignant experience, they shared parts of themselves they usually kept hidden. Fear of failure, blaming self for a parent’s abandonment, an inability to trust anyone, a lack of faith; holding grudges…the guys were brutally honest. The conversation was very personal, the stories compelling. Each one then drew a name of a fellow classmate and was asked to find an object on their island that could represent what their classmate had chose to leave behind and present it to him on our final night after coming off the island.
The Solo began with perfect conditions. It was noon on Tuesday, 85 dry degrees, blue sky with full pillow like cumulus clouds - couldn’t get much nicer. The first three guys loaded their gear onto the boat and Bob brought them out to the islands. I stayed back with the remaining two waiting for the boat to return for the second run. The guys were quiet and apprehensive. They had talked excitedly in the days preceding the solo but now the full impact was upon them. Lower Saranac Lake can be wonderfully serene and natural; protected from land development there are only wild
erness camp sites on its many small islands and shore line. The islands are beautiful, rocky outcrops rising quickly from the waterline with pines, cedars, birches and maples. On the water you’ll spot fish jumping while Loons and Mergansers pedal about.
It was still early afternoon by the time we had all the guys placed on their islands. Bob, Kirby and I began to set up our own camp on the distant shore. We were camped a quarter to a half mile from the islands. I’d checked the forecast earlier that morning and knew there was a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. I thought a small passing storm could add to their experience and welcomed the possibility. It was getting late in the afternoon, approaching evening and Kirby was beginning to cook diner for Bob and I over an open fire pit. We all noticed the thunderheads starting to roll in from the west and the sound of distant thunder with the occasional flash of lightning. Witnessing a storm close-up and personal has always given me a rush of excitement; this time was no exception, although I did have the guys on my mind.  

Quickly the sky blackened, the wind intensified, the thunder was Earth shaking and the rain became sheets of water washing over us. I moved quickly to secure loose items into my tent when suddenly “Crack” and “Crack” two forty foot pines came crashing down between tents and tarp. The lake took on an eerie presence as the whitecaps disappeared and a giant swell of water seemed to be moving up and down in the lake bed. Oh Baby! I thought this is more storm then I had hoped for. How would my guys be holding up, would they be safe? Would they be frightened? It was getting late and I knew we had to get out on the water. The worst of the storm moved through quickly. The rains continued but without the wind the lake no longer looked angry as before. Bob and I got on our raingear and gathered a supply of essentials for first aid and tent repair. The top of one of the fallen pines had landed in our boat and needed to be moved aside before we could go out. I felt like we were running out of time as we motored across the lake.



Braheem was first; we could see his tent from the shore and it appeared to be intact. I called up to him asking if he was OK. A voice came back from inside the tent all was well, he had weathered the storm. But he said he had heard Mike on the other island blowing his whistle. We were off to check on Mike. Mike heard the motor approach his island and was running frantically along the shore line. We could see from the boat that his tent had partially collapsed. Again, making sure he was physically ok we assessed his situation as one that required duct tape and small branches to shore up the snapped tent pole. We asked Mike to come close to the shore so we could toss him the tape and proceed to check on the other guys. As we pulled away from the rocky coast we heard Mike say, “That’s it - you are leaving me here with duct tape”?

We soon approached the islands with Mark and Kyrus. Mark was in great condition, his island and camp site were well protected from the brunt of the storm. Kyrus had not fared so well. He, like Mike came frantically running towards the shore telling us as his tent had collapsed with the poles snapping in multiple pieces. He was inside the tent when the wind exploded his poles and blew Kyrus and the tent a few feet from where it had been set. Kyrus crawled out and rescued himself and his gear seeking refuge in the outhouse. We made sure he was physically fine and assured him we would be back but had to go and check on Terron who had also been blowing his whistle.

Terron heard us coming as we approached the shore line. The wind blew the rain fly off the tent allowing rain to enter and soak the floor. He too was ready to end his island adventure. “Mr. C I was scared, I’ve been singing camp songs waiting for you guys to come”. Terron is one resilient guy who knows how to survive. Staying on the island wasn’t his first choice but we helped Terron relocate the tent and secure the rain fly. We found his driest clothes and told him to snug up in the sleeping bag and we’d see him in the morning. As we left to get back on the boat Terron told us not to worry about him, he said he would be fine; he had been taking care of himself for a long time.

We got back to Kyrus with duct tape, branches and rope; we resurrected his tent and like Terron wished him a good night and a promise to see him in the morning. That night as Bob and I crossed the lake returning to our camp I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and protection for I knew this night would be long remembered by all of us. It was getting late and darkness was beginning to surround us. A steady rain was falling. I looked at Bob who had one hand on the outboard rudder and water running off his slicker, grinning from ear to ear he said “God how I love this!
We spent our final night at the Keene Valley Hostel…sharing the letters, mission statements and the symbolic letting go ceremony. The significance of the storm was lost on no one. We got home on Thursday and the guys graduated on Saturday. In the tradition of UrbanPromise Academy each one gave a speech sharing sometimes funny and sometimes serious memories of their last four years. In the fall four of the five will be starting college and one will enter the Marine Corps. As I sat in the sanctuary that day and listened to each of them declare their plans for college and careers I kept thinking of the storm while I scratched away feverously at all my black fly bites...I looked over at my friend Bob thinking “God how I love this!”  

Peace, there is joy in the journey!



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