by Francisco Daniel Gutierrez
At the west end of the Ben Franklin Bridge, which spans the Delaware River, is Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. At the east end is Camden, in New Jersey, a city of run-down buildings, low employment, high crime, and depressing drop- out rates, a place where drug dealers are considered major employers. Not many on the Philadelphia side willingly venture across the bridge to Camden. But some do.
Every Tuesday afternoon around 3:00 a brown van pulls up beside the Jesuits' Holy Name School in Camden, a turn-of-the-century building on 5th Street where more than 200 kids, mostly Latino, attend classes. Holy Name School, which takes up the two floors above Holy Name Church, is where these kindergartners through eighth graders are educated by a staff of Sisters of Saint Joseph, lay teachers, and volunteers.
Among the latter are the vanload of students from the Jesuits' Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, who shake loose a few hours a week to make this trip to Camden to tutor Holy Name students. One of the Saint Joseph's students is Jay Wetherau.
"Our team comes over as a part of the service learning classes the Faith Justice Institute offers," says Jay. "Most of us are taking Spanish, and Camden's a great place to do service learning in Spanish. I've been coming here for three years now; I've loved every minute of it. It's changed the way I look at things."
As do many of his peers, Jay feels that university classes gain meaning when attached to real-life experiences.
"Before I came to Saint Joseph's I hardly knew what Jesuit meant. And life was easier before I knew how much there was to be done. You grow up thinking the United States may be the best country in the world, but then nine miles away is Camden. It hits you. Now I feel a sense of responsibility for what I have learned and seen."
Just as Holy Name is more than a church building, the rectory, around the corner on State Street, is more than just another row house in a neighborhood ravaged by time and change. The house at 522 State Street looks the same as the others on the block, but there's a sign hanging on the front porch that sets it apart: Casa Parroquial¯The Jesuit fathers welcome you. It's the hub for the activities that draw Jay and his fellow students at Saint Joseph's University to the Holy Name grade schoolers they tutor. It's also the hub for many other Jesuit activities in Camden.
Fr. Frank Kaminski, SJ, Holy Name's pastor, lives there, leading efforts for the parish's 450 families. It's also home for a physician, Fr. Mark Aita, SJ, who works across the street and down a bit at St. Luke's Catholic Medical Services, a community health organization that he directs.
Another resident of the rectory is Dan Joyce, SJ, the community outreach coordinator for Guadalupe Family Services (GFS), a Holy Name sponsored social work team that includes Sisters of Saint Joseph, Jesuits, and lay people who offer counseling services to families and individuals and educate children about the hazards of drug use.
And that bridge, which links Jesuit works on both sides of the river, goes in both directions.
"I was lucky to go to school at Holy Name," says nineteen-year-old José Vázquez, who grew up in Camden. Like many other families there, José's traces its roots back to Puerto Rico, where his grandparents grew up before coming to New Jersey.
"To be a Holy Name student means to be a part of the Jesuit connection, to have the chance to get a good education and get into a good high school," says José, who starts his second year as a philosophy student at Saint Joseph's University this fall.
"After sixth grade one of the Jesuits told me about a summer academic program at St. Joseph's Prep that would prepare me for high school there, across the river. I did that for three summers, and then I took the entrance exam. The 93 I scored got me in."
"I remember feeling a bit strange at first," José recalls. "It was a totally different world from Camden. Most of the kids at the prep didn't have to worry about money, buying books, and that sort of stuff. All we had were our parents' hard work and the Jesuits. That was what we counted on."
One aspect of life at the prep that José came to enjoy was the chance to give something back to his community.
"The prep world and my backyard ended up very connected. One summer for a few weeks we went over to Holy Name School to pick up the kids and take them to parks and museums. At first, the prep students and the Holy Name children weren't that comfortable with each other. But after a few weeks a rapport developed; everyone was tossing about and having lots of fun."
There are other participants in this Jesuit network who make regular trips across the bridge as do Jay and José.
Like most of the Holy Name Jesuits, Dan Joyce, a tall Irish American in his thirties, cannot give his job description in a single sentence. In addition to his work at GFS, he's involved in other duties that take him over to Philadelphia. He serves on Saint Joseph's University's board of trustees, helps plan summer recreation camps for Holy Name grade schoolers and reading and writing camps for junior-high students at the university, and works with Fr. Aita on a program that places Holy Name grads in high schools, including St. Joseph's Prep.
And there's New Yorker Michael Lott, working on an MA in criminal justice at Saint Joseph's. His thesis, on welfare reform, requires interviews with welfare recipients, and that brings him to Camden. Armed with a list of names and addresses, Dan steers Michael through the city's streets, introducing him to its residents.
"Dan knows so many of the people." says Michael. "He knocks on doors and says, ‘I know your son.' Conversations start; doors open. It's evident that Holy Name plays a vital role in the lives of these people."
Because of the link between Holy Name and its community, Saint Joseph's social sciences students like Michael have in Camden a laboratory that provides them far more than any textbook could.</p>
"I've learned a lot more about the bonds that exist between people in need; it's changed the way I look at things," says Michael. "One man told me that he's applying for aid but he's being pushed around; he is disabled, and things aren't going well, but he tells me that in the back of his mind he knows that Fr. Aita and the other Jesuits will always be there for him."
When talking about his experiences in Camden, Michael is an educator. "In the beginning some people told me to wear a bulletproof vest; they said Camden was a crazy place. But through myself and other students as well as people like Dan Joyce, Camden is having a voice at Saint Joseph's University, and that's good." He smiles as he says, "The only thing I don't like is the $2 toll every time I cross the bridge."
There's another member of the Saint Joseph's University community who makes use of the bridge, but in the opposite direction. Fr. Rick Malloy, SJ, is a professor of sociology at Saint Joseph's University who calls the rectory in Camden home.
"I'm a precious commodity for Saint Joseph's University. They don't have too many of us priests running around teaching any more; and yet I feel privileged to be able to live in Camden," he says. "My students know where I live, and that wakes them up. It's not as though we're talking about East L.A. Camden's nine miles away. It opens their eyes."
Fr. Malloy has published scholarly papers, including one on Latino leadership and another on how children cope with stigmatization. His observation of social realities makes him interested in creative forms of education for his students.
"One thing I'd like to do is to have a bunch of Saint Joseph's students come over to Camden and actually have one of my classes here. We could have a sort of mini-dorm so that students could have a taste of the life here; it would give them a better understanding of the city, and it would be educationally enriching."
Fr. Malloy's teaching is not all done in university classrooms. He teaches a Bible study class at the parish, "Católico y Orgulloso," for about 70 adults. As a resident of Camden and a member of local boards, he is directly involved with the community, and that is important to Fr. Malloy. He was once featured in the New York Times; the story was about his battle with drug dealers' graffiti and how he incurred their wrath. "Armed with a roller and a bucket of white paint I covered the mural. The dealers were not amused. Soon a four-foot-high four-letter word followed by my name was spray-painted over my paint job."
Fr. Malloy puts his work on both sides of the river in perspective.
"There are great things happening over at Saint Joseph's, which has been receptive to my ideas, including organizing trips to places where the civil rights movement was fought and building houses down in Kentucky. I'm very proud of Saint Joseph's. But after ten years in Camden I've come to love this place; I'll be digging my grave here for a long time. Being here gives me so much satisfaction."
The bridge between Philadelphia and Camden takes José Vázquez to classes Saint Joseph's University and also draws Jay Wetherau to his inner-city tutoring. It also allows Fr. Malloy to teach at Saint Joseph's and Michael Lott to interview Camden residents. They are just a few of the participants in a Jesuit network that helps turn dreams into reality on both sides of that bridge.
Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, SJ, [email protected] Copyright(c) Company Magazine. Created: 10/18/98 Updated: 10/24/98