My Disturbing Church
A somber monument rises up from the pavement across the street from Sacred Heart Church on the corner of Broadway and Jasper Street in Camden NJ. Fifty-five white wooden crosses are nailed against a wall painted black as a starless sky to represent all who were shot, stabbed, strangled or beaten to death in the past year; one cross for each human life struck down by violence in America’s most dangerous city.
Think about it. Fifty-five people murdered in a 10.3 sq. mile city of 79,000, with a crime rate of 87 per one thousand residents. But who cares about Camden’s numbers? Beyond the occasional sound byte and media headline these numbers don’t really disturb anyone.
Camden is easy to forget if you don’t live there. It’s the media coverage about all those pesky murders and the crime related violence that keeps Camden in our collective suburban conscience. But why don’t we care?
Is it because no one important lives in Camden, just untouchables and throw-aways, people who are a perceived drain on the system?
If Camden residents aren’t drug dealers, welfare abusers, prostitutes, addicts, thugs or drunks, then they are people who are out of work and shit out of luck, the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the homeless, the mentally ill and the immigrant. I’ve heard many folks complain that these lazy n’er do wells clog up the soup kitchens and the clothing lines looking for handouts while everyone else is working hard and paying taxes. No matter how much you help them, they never seem to change. They are rude and demanding, in a word -entitled. They don’t seem especially appreciative of folks who are giving their time and energy to help them.
But still I have to ask myself, is it fair to expect the marginalized to act as if they are not marginalized? Forget about fair, is it even logical to expect or demand change just because we show up to help? If transformation were that easy, then everyone would be enlightened.
If you listen to certain news outlets, even the ordinary, “normal” folks who live there can’t seem to help themselves and do better. If they could, do you think they would choose to live in a city that could pass for a third world country on a good day? They don’t even clean up the trash on their streets, for God’s sake!
In response to a recent drug related murder, I saw someone comment on Facebook that the only way to clean up Camden was to build a wall around the city until the “animals” who live there eventually kill each other, giving the state of NJ a perfect opportunity to rebuild and start over from scratch. Apparently, no one there is worth saving now. The remark evokes shades of ethnic cleansing, American style, targeting the poor instead of one particular ethnic group -disturbing. But there it was plain as day, garnering more than a dozen “Likes.”
I’d like to forget about Camden too; to look out my window at the deer in the backyard of my home on the edge of the Jersey pine lands as if my suburban sanctuary was the only place on earth that mattered; to turn my back on all the ugliness, danger and poverty that grows like black mold in the city’s streets. There are 15 miles and the sprawl along Route 70 between my home and Camden City. From where I sit in Medford, Camden might as well be Iraq.
But I can’t forget. Each Sunday when I drive to Mass at Sacred Heart I come face to face with Camden in all her glory.
I see prostitutes on Broadway hustling for drug money, and the same group of homeless men hanging out by the corner liquor store.
I see the abandoned factories and bombed out shells of buildings, and vacant lots cluttered with syringes on the browned out grass.
I smell the putrid air from the sewer treatment plant that overpowers the neighborhood and I see the bullet hole in the stained glass window of the church, a souvenir from 2 years ago when a 19 year old girl was killed in a drive-by shooting while she was buying a sandwich at the deli across the street.
I see 55 crosses ascending from the sidewalk, a shrine that cries out from the ground, like Abel’s blood.
It makes me sick. It makes me want to cry. It makes me want to run away and never return to Camden.
My wanting to run away and forget about Camden is the reason why I force myself to go there. Wanting to forget something means that the memory of it is too disturbing.
And I don’t like to be disturbed.
But of what value is the gospel if it doesn’t disturb us?
Shouldn’t every person of faith, church going or not in South Jersey be disturbed about Camden? Or like the pharisee in the gospel should we kneel down in our pews and give thanks to God that we “are not like them,” the ones who live beyond our borders, the lepers of Camden?
So I go to church to be disturbed; to break bread with a congregation that doesn’t separate itself from the poor; that doesn’t promote a gospel of personal salvation at the expense of people who are suffering and dying from violence and unmitigated poverty now.
Somehow, worshiping amid the broken streets of Camden, in the sacred space of Sacred Heart Church, I sense my own brokenness and the spirit of Christ is very present. There is something very real and spiritual going on at Sacred Heart as if the gospel illuminates the windows, the pews, our clasped hands when we recite The Lords Prayer, and the bread and wine we share at the altar. All barriers are debilitated and there is communion.
My disturbing church reminds me each week that life isn’t safe no matter what lengths I go to in order to protect myself. Distance and circumstance separate me from Camden but not much else. But as long as we stay connected to God and each other, there is hope.
I don’t want to live in Camden. If I had balls maybe I would. I don’t kid myself that I’m doing anything special by attending church there. I do after all return to my home in the suburbs after church each week.
But I see it like this. I’m sort of like Carmella Soprano when she realized what a morally bankrupt scum bag her husband Tony was. She sought help from her priest and her psychiatrist. On the one hand she had money and power as Tony’s wife, on the other she had the knowledge that her life was based on murder, cruelty and corruption. She was in spiritual crisis. Her priest was no help, leading her to moral rationalization. Her psychiatrist was brutally honest, calling Tony a depressed mob criminal and an adulterer. Leave him, he told her, and take whats left of your children and go. His last words to her were chilling:
"One thing you can never say, is that you haven’t been told."
Carmella ultimately chose comfort over disturbance. I have no delusions that I might have done the same in her position. It’s just as difficult for the haves to make life-changing shifts as the have nots, perhaps even more so.
That’s why I force myself to attend a church in the heart of America’s most dangerous city, where I am disturbed enough to act, to pray, to give, to help, to hope, to cry out to God "to heal all that is broken in our lives and in our streets."
I can’t ignore or forget what I see, hear, smell and touch when I go to church each week.
I have been told.
Even if I wanted to forget what the gospel tells me about the poor, my presence at Sacred Heart won’t let me. Camden isn’t a concept , a mere visual blight upon my suburban landscape. It is a brick and mortar experience. Sacred Heart keeps me on my knees and my prayer is urgent.
Who knows if my presence at Sacred Heart will make a difference? I am compelled by my forgetfulness, because like Carmella, I am addicted to comfort.
I go to church to be disturbed because Sacred Heart teaches me that my own comfort is my greatest deficit, and the biggest obstacle to spiritual growth and compassion.
It isn’t much, but it is something.