Living so close by (geographically, anyway), we probably thought we had better ideas about Camden than most workgroups. Our local newspapers and newscasts are full of the stories. Yet we still did our research. We watched the 20/20 series together. We tried to dig a little deeper. But even with all that, had you asked any of us what we would expect to see on the streets of Camden, words like compassion, grace, patience, and abounding love were not the first words that would have come to anyone’s mind.
Yet upon arrival, those were some of the very first words we heard. Bruce used them when he spoke to us on Sunday night. Those of us at Camp Grace heard them again first thing Monday morning . . . and over and over again as the “basketball verse” each day of the week. No matter which of the three camps (Grace, Peace or Saved) we had been assigned to, we saw them being lived out on a daily basis by the interns and street leaders we worked alongside. We saw the results of that in the respect and affection given by the kids to their leaders and, whether immediately or eventually, to us.
We learned more about the power in those words when we talked more with some of the directors, interns and street leaders during the week. So many of them were former camp kids who have responded to God’s gift of Urban Promise by choosing to return and give back. Every one of them who chose to answer our question about what kept them off the streets, identified people both inside and outside Urban Promise who showed those qualities to them in one way or another. . . compassion, grace, patience and, most of all, love. Most of the rest of our state and our nation may have written Camden off as hopeless, but clearly God never will, and He carries out His work in a million small ways through hundreds of amazing people here. What a gift to have the chance to be even a small part of that!
Still, Camden is Camden, and the problems faced here every day that appeared so daunting from a distance (even a short one!) now threaten to overwhelm us as we have been drawn closer and been given even greater reasons to care so much more. Stories that previously might have drawn nothing more than a sympathetic response now break our peace completely and bring us to tears. We feel the need to do something, but find ourselves at a loss as to what that something might be. We have a hard time understanding that “fixing” Camden does not necessarily mean making it more like where we live. We don’t have to struggle and fight so much to get out of our softer cocoons and fly, so in many ways we are not as strong and will never fly as high or as far as those we have met here. God has not prepared us in that way, so perhaps it is for us to continue to be present and stand ready to help one of those He has . . .
There is much still inside us that we have no words to express, and probably won’t for some time to come. But through all of that, two things do come through quite clearly. First; humble gratitude for God’s grace and compassion shown to us in bringing us together, bringing us here, and teaching us – through you – more about how He works in this world and how we can join in His work. Mother Teresa said it best; “We are not called to do great things . . . we are called to do small things with great love.” Second; immense admiration for your incredible faithfulness, patience and love in keeping this ministry alive and growing for 21 years. Be assured you will have our continued love, prayers and commitment to help in whatever ways God may move (and in some cases already has moved) us to do so according to His gifts to us. In that Spirit, we offer these closing thoughts, both to encourage you and to remind ourselves what we can do and mean to each other.
“Never doubt a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
“Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
1st Corinthians 15:58
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church workgroup (Pennington, NJ)
“Wouldn’t it be great if revival came to Camden?” was the response my husband received after sharing with someone about our week with UrbanPromise. How do you explain to someone that this really isn’t the point? Do not misunderstand me; Camden needs Jesus in a major way, but not through revival. The body of Christ in the local church needs revival so that they get off their Sunday pews and start being the hands and feet of Jesus, not only in Camden, but in their own neighborhoods and streets.
How do we begin this great task of rousing a sleeping giant from a comatose state? Shall we have longer sermons, more altar calls, more singing? That could help the giant to reposition itself a little, but what will cause this mighty body to come alive from within?
WE need Jesus and we need each other. Only by becoming passionate about Jesus and passionate about other people will we see new life breathed into our body. When we are able to see past our differences to the real person underneath; when we are able to not only see a soul in need of saving, but a stomach that needs to be fed and shoulders that need loving arms wrapped around them; when we are able to LIVE outside our “comfort zones”— then the body of Christ will truly become the hands and feet of Jesus.
May my heart never forget the lessons I have learned in Camden through UrbanPromise, but more importantly, may I never forget the people. I do not think that I ever will. They have invaded and changed my heart. I will never be the same.
My prayer is that my husband and I have a long relationship with UrbanPromise, but if for some reason God’s will is different, I pray that we can truly be Jesus’ hands and feet in our own community—wherever He leads us.
Praise God for UrbanPromise—keep being the hands and feet of Jesus. We are honored to know you.
Tressler Mennonite Church
Every morning at 6:15am, seven year old Milton begins his 45 minute walk down a steep rocky path toward the small mountain city of Copan Ruinas. Copan Ruinas—famous for its Myan ruins that provided the foundation of a dynamic civilization built over 2000 years ago—is now famous for its tourism and small coffee plantations. Milton is a descendant of the Myan people.
At 7:30am our little friend catches a bus at the foot of his mountain that winds through the city’s cobble stone streets and drops him at Camp Joy—UrbanPromise’s first summer day Camp in the country of Honduras.
Some of you have been watching the political situation in Honduras, which is currently unstable. Citizens of this wonderful country are nervously watching their televisions. Although the protests have not reached the city of Copan Ruinas, the impact of the political unrest is devastating. Tourism, the life blood of this city, has slowed to a mere trickle. Hotels and restaurants, usually filled during this time of year, are vacant. People have lost their jobs. “If it continues much longer,” shared the owner of one coffee shop, “we’ll all be out of business.” This will drive the area into deeper poverty….which will impact the lives of children.
That’s why programs like UrbanPromise are critical.
Camp Joy has been created by three former UrbanPromise interns—Blair, Matt, and Rachel. These committed young leaders have a passion to create an UrbanPromise-type ministry for the children and teens of this small city—a city where poverty is high and opportunities for children to engage in life changing, Christian-based programs are non-existent.
Children like Milton would typically spend their summer sleeping, hanging out in the streets, or doing odd jobs to help support the family. Now they get a chance to improve their English, learn about the Bible, play games, cook food, sing songs and watch skits. Their joy is palpable. Their smiles intoxicating.
“The potential for this kind of ministry is incredible,” shares director Blair Quinius. “There is nothing like it for the children in this community. Parents and community leaders are excited.”
They are not the only people excited.
Otherwise, why would a seven year old named Milton get up before dawn, walk for 45 minutes to catch a bus, just to come to camp? Why: because he loves it!
Dr. Bruce Main
As summer unfolds, and the temperature slowly rises to its peak, UrbanPromise receives its first work group for the summer of 2009 from North Davis Church of Christ, which is located in Arlington, Texas. They are enthusiastic and very friendly. Despite all the fatigue they have accumulated due to their long trip to
Camden, the group members are playful and eager to get acquainted with the new place. During their stay here at UP, they will alternate between helping out at camps and doing afternoon work projects that are intended to help maintain UP facilities.
Peter Mac Iver, a 16 year-old High School student from Baltimore that came with the work group from Faith Christian Fellowship, had to say:
When asked to write this review, I didn't know really what to say, so hopefully God will guide me in what to write. Our work group that came here to Camden is unique in two ways. We are visiting from Faith Christian Fellowship in Baltimore, MD. Most work group that come to urban promise to volunteer are larger groups, but are only a group of 7, including 4 students. We are also different in that many of the things we observed in Camden reminded us of the same problems that exist in Baltimore and the neighborhood around our urban church.
Personally, having been to Camden before in April with my school, I knew what to expect going in but the poverty didn't fail to shock me. I was skeptical to visit Camden for the second time because I didn't think it would be able to live to my amazing first trip to Camden. In retrospect, I'm glad that I decided to visit again as the trip has continued to solidify my sense of need in social justice.
My goal for this trip was to gather valuable information and quotes that could be used in a school newspaper article. Though there is no guarantee that my school will allow me to publish material that they feel is too "blunt" or "depressing." I feel that there is too much apathy in our society, especially in the white community which my school has a majority of, to the poor and socially marginalized. My hope is that my article is published, even if force is necessary, to bring awareness that injustice remains in Camden and there is a need for people to be aware of this and advocate work for a difference. To some heartless complacent people in my school, my article may seem stupid, but I find it necessary.
I was able to obtain lots of information at our panel forum with Tony and Miles. Their stories were compelling and the meeting remains a highlight of my trip. A downfall of the trip I would say would be the morning devotions. For some reason I didn't find them enjoyable and felt they were forced and random. Our typical schedule for the trip was morning devotions, the morning spent with children at various camps, and at work projects aka maintenance for Urban Promise in the afternoon. This opened up the evenings some days for free time if something was not scheduled at UP.
Overall, my experience at Up was very enjoyable and exceeded my expectations. All the UP staff was friendly. I'm still blown away by the maturity of the community youth that work at the camps and the behavior of the children themselves. I am glad I decided to return to the city of Camden, and will no doubt be back in the future.
Most volunteers that come to UrbanPromise for the first time have a common idea of the city of Camden, in which the ministry was born and still operates. "It is a poor and dangerous city to live in" I heard people say over and over again. Yet, UrbanPromise always receives volunteers from all over the world who, after their one week stay, wish they could delay their departure even for a day.
The change of heart is caused by no one else but the children they meet in camps; their love and liveliness cannot fail to conquer anyone's heart. One of our recent volunteers from Arlington, Texas was surprised by how, after only three days, the kids knew his name and would run towards him every time they saw him, asking for nothing but a hug.
Over the years, some people who had come to UrbanPromise for the first time as one-week volunteers came back as summer long or year long interns, and others became part of the UP staff because it became impossible for them to permanently part ways with the experience they had had at UrbanPromise during their one-week stay.
Furthermore, UrbanPromise has served as a chief inspiration for folks around the world to found similar non-profit organizations. In 2005, for instance, YouthCare was founded to meet the needs of the children and youth of Malawi. There are also UrbanPromise programs in places like Wilmington (Delaware), Toronto (Ontario), and Vancouver (British Columbia) that were started with the help of the UrbanPromise located in Camden, New Jersey.
" One day, as I was walking down the street on my way to work, I noticed roses blossoming amongst wild and tall grasses in front of an abandoned house, and it reminded me that there is beauty in Camden, despite all the negative media portrayals of the city," Elise Neumann, the Urban Promise workgroup coordinator, said during her morning devotion.
I was a new intern when she said that, and I could not help but think of the decay I saw in Camden; boarded up houses, unbearable smells that come from sewage treatment plants built in the vicinity of tenements, the unfavorable statistics that ranked Camden on the top of the list of dangerous cities to live in the same year as they placed Moorestown, a town located only 15 minutes away from Camden, among the best places to live and raise one's children in, and several other unpleasant sights and numbers. However, the more I talked to people who were born here and know more about Camden than what the media tells the public, I realized that roses really do bloom in Camden.
Despite having very little financial means, kids are always eager to contribute to programs that raise money to feed and shelter the hungry and homeless people in Africa. The love and heart of service for others that are found in Camden conquered the heart of one work group volunteer from The Free Evangelical Fellowship, located in Easton, MA. She was so pleased by her experience at UrbanPromise that she, and 6 of her fellow youth group members, came here for two consecutive summers. The following is what she said at the end of their stay here at UrbanPromise.
"Camden to me in the beginning was a city labeled with too many statistics for its size. Last year I was unsure of what I was going to experience, returning this year was all I dreamt about since the moment we said goodbye last year . God has taught me not to go into any situation with expectations. This year was amazing. A week of love is what I received. Camden to me has become my heart. Whether it is God or something else, it is amazing how the people here can care so much about so little. As I go back [home] I have found that I need to be more open to all aspects of freely giving and loving with the abundance God has given. One other thing I see is that through all the burden the community [has to bear] is shining. Over one year I have seen great improvement in many parts of the city. Some houses have been rebuilt, and there are more lively shopping areas."
We began the week with a visit to Gettysburg College, where we spoke with college admissions staff, and then spent the afternoon exploring the Gettysburg battlefield.
We were fortunate to have our Trekker friend, Bob Lehman, or ‘Bobby’ as the Trekkers called him, share his knowledge of the battlefield and his experiences as an undergrad at Gettysburg College. Our first two nights were spend at the Harper’s Ferry Hostel, which is a great location to explore the story of John Brown the abolitionist, and his raid on the munitions armory in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.
We spent Tuesday whitewater rafting on and in the frigid Shenandoah River. It was an awesome outdoor adventure. We also visited Antietam battlefield in Maryland, which was the bloodiest single day of battle in American history, and historic downtown Harpers Ferry.
From there we headed south into Virginia and the beautiful Shenandoah valley, visiting the New Market Battlefield, where cadets from the Virginia Military Institute defeated the Union troops led by Major General Franz Sigel. That afternoon we toured Luray Caverns, outside of Harrisonburg Virginia.
We were hosted by our good friend, Katherine Johnson, from Grace Covenant Church in Harrisonburg, who graciously housed us at her parents home for three nights, as we toured the valley.
We were able to hike the Blue Ridge Mountains along a small portion of the Appalachian Trail, take a ten mile bicycling loop through an old order Mennonite farming community, visit a Mennonite dairy and poultry farm, where we milked cows, chased chickens, and jumped into the feed pile from the barn rafters. We further explored history by going to Charlottesville, Virginia and Monticello, the family home of Thomas Jefferson. As detectives, we looked at some of Jefferson’s writings and saw the contradictions in his own life, with his relationship to the issue of slavery, as well as his affair with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, who bore a number of his children.
Trips like this allow us to include all the elements of an UrbanTrekker expedition, and make it something special. It’s the travel, the learning, and the adventure, but most important of all, the relationships that are created and strengthened as our students explore the world beyond the streets of Camden that make them UrbanTrekkers.
It is Saturday. School starts again on Monday. Spring Break is over. My week with UrbanPromise is over. It is painfully hard to believe that this week came and went so quickly. It is almost surreal. Now I’m home. I’m back at school. Life is back to ‘normal.’
Is this experience just going to be a fun week I had over Spring Break in Camden hanging out and playing with kids? Is it just going to be an impressive experience to tell people I’ve had in my life? Or am I going to let it really affect me and change me? What was it all even about? Was it about spending time with sweet little ones and listening to them? Was it about giving relief to the teachers and workers at UrbanPromise and the Forward School? Was it about building relationships with those on my team and at UrbanPromise? Was it about giving back to the community for a week? Was it about many of these things and more?
Driving home, I heard a song on my iPod that struck me in a powerful way and articulated a large part of what I gleaned from my experience at UrbanPromise this week. Oh the Glory of It All, by David Crowder:
Oh the Glory of it all is: he came here for the rescue of us all that we may live for the glory of it all oh he is here for redemption from the Fall that we may live for the glory of it all After night comes the light dawn is here dawn is here it’s a new day it’s a new day everything will change things will never be the same we will never be the same…
To me, this is what it is all about. Rescue. Redemption from the Fall. New life. Dawn after the darkness. Change.
Being in Camden this week broke my heart, on so many levels. Leaving those kids and that city was so hard for me, for many reasons. This week also challenged my worldview and assumptions about people and reality. But, what I’ve found to be the most impacting lesson of all is that it reminded me of the absolute and beautiful redemptive power of God to bring the dawn and light to the darkest parts of our hearts and lives. I was reminded of why I am a person of faith, and why I do the things I do. I was reminded of the possibly the most important facet of the heart of God, his desire to redeem his people. That is exactly what He is doing in Camden, bringing redemption. Likewise, that is what Urban Promise is doing alongside God in Camden. I am honored to have spent a week with them.
Physically, Camden is a very dark place, as evidenced by our tour of the city and even reading statistics about the city. Seeing the work at Urban Promise this week, and participating in it, gave me a glimpse of the expansive and amazing work that UrbanPromise does day after day. On a deeper level, this week gave me a look at the heart and passion of God.
I hope to end up at UrbanPromise again soon, but in the meantime, I am challenged to bring the same hope and love to the people I encounter on a daily basis. The work Urban Promise does is unique to Camden in many ways, but the overall mission is the same around the world. We are all called to love the loveless, remember the forgotten, and bring hope to the hopeless, wherever we are.
Personally, being in Camden for a week working with UrbanPromise, I have a renewed faith in the redemptive mission of God for our world, and even in my own heart. I have been overwhelmed with conviction, staggered by reality, and renewed with hope.
Even with my brief experience in Camden, I could write for pages and pages. I only spent a week at the Camden Forward School with UrbanPromise, so I can not fathom what a longer term and more diverse experience with UrbanPromise and the people of Camden would look like for my life. But I know I want to find out. But for now, I’ll just have to grasp what I have learned and carry it with me wherever I go.
Thanks UrbanPromise, for welcoming my group and me into your community and loving us with the same love you show the people of Camden. See you all soon I hope!
This past week was my second spring break that I went to Camden. I am amazed at how different of an experience it was for me then it was the first time I came to Camden. Not only was I able to use some of my skills for the ministry but I was also able to interact with the kids in one of the after school programs. I interacted with a number of kids but there are two in particular that stick out for me. One was a boy named Jeffry who on my first afternoon being at the after school program came up to me and asked me to play basketball with him. Somewhere in the conversation the boy said to me that he was going to make a facebook account just so he could add me as his friend. The other was Eman who I randomly started talking to and continued to talk to until the end of the week. Both boys showed me the impact I had just being there.
PLIA 2009 Camden group