When we are able to connect Camden Struggles with Camden Resurrections, we become aware of our Entanglement with each other. Last week, we, at CfET, were able to create the first of many more to come Weeks of Entanglement by hosting George Mason University students in our Immersion Retreat program. The 8 students, all of whom were brilliant both in their academic achievements and in their ability to be present to new, disturbing, and joyful realities that they encountered every day with us, were unfolded and helped unfold Camden children and community members every day. Here is what they experienced.
On day one, an hour after they arrived, they went to Joe’s Place, a ministry of Sacred Heart Church, that serves meals to the hungry every Saturday evening. They helped prepare and set up tables. They served our neighbors with joy and hospitality, often noticing the reciprocal joy of those who came through the line. They received more than they gave. They then went to The Fireworks Art Center in Camden where we shared pizza and conversation with local artists who believe and practice creating art for connecting us together.
Day two began with Mass at Sacred Heart Church. Now, most of these students weren’t Catholic but they wanted to experience a parish where most of the attendees at Mass are involved in social justice in the community. They wanted to know how to create a community of people who step out of their comfort zone to do the work of making the world more fair and just. Mass was followed by an Eco-Tour of our Camden neighborhood where they were able to see the areas of urban destruction and resurrection. In line with our planning for this retreat, we went back to CfET where they heard from event planners and social justice warriors of iCreate. Sol Chyld, a 20-year old Camden resident and music and poetry artist performed one of her spoken word poems. During this part of the day, we were joined by several students from Mighty Writers who are participating in a documentary making class at The Nick Virgilio Writers House. One of those students, 14 years old, after some encouragement and support from us all, was able to recite her spoken word about growing up and finding her way through the conflicts she encounters as a dark skinned child. She and Sol Chyld were Incredible! The day ended with a dinner with the Intentional Community where students joined in a conversation about growing up in Camden and the choices we all make.
On Monday, the GMU students worked with Farmer Jon in our CfET gardens. They were able to see the conversion of Camden land into a place where food is grown for this food desert. What must it be like to have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables in your city? GMU was about to find out. When we went to Mighty Writers after the garden work, the GMU students were assigned one on one to middle school students. They helped with homework completion and then worked with the students to create a biography of each of them. The conversations about who we are, where we live, what we enjoy, what we think about our future were inspiring and joyful. The biographies were saved for reading aloud to the group on a future day.
Part of the planning with GMU included two day and two evenings of work with people at Eastern State and Phoenix State Prisons where they were to meet with prisoners, ex-prisoners, and activists who are trying to change the prison system. They were to experience and understand how poverty and lack of resources can impact a child and contribute to criminal behavior that results in incarceration for the same children they worked with today.
On Tuesday, we traveled up the road to Joseph’s House, a homeless shelter and day center. We toured and discussed the reality of homelessness. We met staff and people who were formerly homeless that now work to change the reality of it. We followed this place of struggle with Cathedral Kitchen. There, they toured but more importantly, they learned about Cathedral Kitchen’s culinary arts program that works with people with limited access to jobs like ex-prisoners who are trained and are able to work once again. We served dinner to the hungry at Cathedral Kitchen at the end of our tour. Once again, the struggles and successes of Camden were highlighted and integrated into the experiences of the GMU students.
Wednesday, GMU went to Eastern State Penitentiary. When they came back to Camden, they worked again with middle school Mighty Writers reciting publicly the biographies we had written about each other. We found so many connections and similarities among us all. We all went to the gardens with Farmer Jon to plant peas as a team, celebrating our sameness and our commitment to grow life for Camden and food for all of us. That evening, our CfET staff met with GMU to connect our Five Pillars of CfET with the activities and experiences they had so far. The students helped us integrate their ideas and to plan for the next group.
Thursday. What a week so far!! We traveled to Brigid’s Peace House, just two doors down from CfET, where we learned about Ecological Elegies and wrote our responses to the destruction of Earth, of life, of opportunities we see around us. In the afternoon, the New View Camden director and two artists came to speak about what is happening with this new project that will celebrate Camden by creating art on former dumping sites in the city. Again, we see death and resurrection in the same spaces in our hearts and in our realities. That evening, GMU traveled to Phoenix State Prison for a discussion with prisoners and social justice advocates. They came home moved, stirred to action, and committed.
It’s Friday and after working in the gardens with Farmer Jon and exploring energy sustainability concepts with him, we were back at CfET with two experts in advocacy writing. After researching several areas of concern, we decided on Camden as a food desert and all the students wrote letters to be mailed to officials. In the evening, they had dinner with the Eastern State program coordinators at CfET and a discussion followed where the struggles and resurrections of the week were highlighted again and our Entanglement in all of them.
Finally Saturday. Clean the house, pack our bags, share in a closing ceremony of words, thoughts, impressions, commitments and a blessing. “You are blessed with olive oil from the tree of life. You are blessed with oil of rosemary for remembrance of all you have seen, and heard, and experienced. You are blessed within the circle of life of which you are a part. You are commissioned to help care for Earth, for all people, here and at home, and to pass your goodness to seven generations.”
Here are some of the things the GMU students said during the final session:
- In Camden, I learned to expect the unexpected.
- This experience solidified what I want to do with my life, with my degree, with who I am.
- I experienced what the text books at school only hint at. You must experience the reality of social injustice in order to own your part in it and become a change agent in it.
- I used to be quiet about my passions. Now I will be more open about my views, passionate about what I’ve seen and experienced, and will be my own person!
- This trip was humanizing and I’ve become both a defender and a cheerleader for Camden!
- I learned if these people that work so hard for justice can do it, so can I!!
- I learned how systems impact Camden and how systems of justice can change this city and connect communities together.
- We discovered and were rejoicing on the reality that we are all entangled!
We cannot do any of this without you, our friends and supporters. Thanks for all that your generosity enables us to do.
Cathy Nevins, MSW
Member, Board of Trustees, CFET
Chair, Immersion Experience Committee