I am writing this on a beautiful autumn day in Camden, NJ. One of the great blessings of living in the mid-Atlantic region is that we experience the full gamut of the seasons, including my favorite, the multi-colored and gloriously cool autumn months. Another blessing that I receive, regularly, is the chance to meet extraordinary people, whether at my job, in the supermarket, or walking down the streets of Camden. On October 4th I once again met an extraordinary person, had the honor of listening to him passionately advocate for the earth, and witnessed his simple way with the children of our Camden neighborhood. On October 4th I met Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and it was indeed extraordinary.
Perhaps you read about his visit in the Courier-Post or the Philadelphia Inquirer. Perhaps you saw photographs on Facebook or the Courier-Post’s website. If you were not there, and many were not because of family or religious commitments;, but if you were not there, I beg you to talk to someone who was there, if you haven’t already. It was an extraordinary experience with a down-to-earth human being who was more comfortable with the children of our neighborhood than he was with the many adults who clamored to get a photo with him!
The event was the 6th Annual Thomas Berry Lecture sponsored by CFET. It is our largest fundraiser and “friend raiser” of the year. Cathy Nevins, board member and event chairperson, reached out to Kennedy’s people a year ago, on the hope that maybe, just maybe, he would come to Camden. Well, he said yes, and so began a long process of planning that paid off handsomely when he spoke for 60 minutes at Sacred Heart Church before an audience of 375 people. His topic was the environment and he spared no punches in his criticism of crony capitalism, which works around the demands of the free market, to keep polluting industries from bearing the true costs of their productive processes. He talked about the “theft” that is accomplished when industries leave the air or water more toxic than before they dumped their waste product into it. The air and water are part of the commons. No one owns the air or water, yet polluting industries are robbing us of our common heritage. This is theft, no doubt about it. His talk was electrifying, and he challenged us to become activists on behalf of our children and grandchildren. We can be economically successful AND respectful of the environment. That we cannot is a canard foisted on the American people by the very industries and their spokespersons that stand to lose some of their profit if we stop the government subsidies that keep their prices artificially low. He is a brilliant, articulate and forceful defender of the proposition that the economic energies of our nation will burst forth in creativity and job creation if we simply stopped the gigantic subsidies that go out to major polluters in this country.
The crowd was hanging on every word, murmuring their consent as he went along. Among the crowd were 60 young people, from regional high schools, colleges and universities. Represented that day were Haddonfield HS, Camden Catholic HS, The Academy of Aquatic Sciences, Camden County College, Rutgers University/Camden, Rowan University, Neumann University, St. Joseph’s University, LaSalle University and Villanova University. We invited these young people to remember a historic visit to Camden by another Kennedy in 1968. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, our speaker’s father, came to Camden during his run for the Democratic Presidential nomination. During his visit the elder Kennedy challenged people to realize that the only real purpose in life is to make the world a better place. Many young people in South Jersey were inspired by that talk, particularly a young law student named James Florio who credits Senator Kennedy’s challenge with motivating him to pursue public service, and ultimately to serve the State of New Jersey as its governor. As an echo of that 1968 talk, we invited young people to meet and listen to the younger Kennedy who himself has honored his father’s challenge to work for a better world. We hoped that a new generation would be just as inspired as was the generation who heard his father. The young people were on the edge of their seats, listening to Mr. Kennedy talk, and they could have continued to listen for another hour.
After the talk, the young people came up to have their picture taken, as small groups, with Mr. Kennedy. He made it a point to shake each of their hands. It was a special gesture on his part. We then walked the two blocks to the Michael J. Doyle Fieldhouse where we held a reception at which Mr. Kennedy signed copies of his books and documentary film. On the walk to the field house several neighborhood families stopped him, asking who he was. When they heard his name, they wanted a photograph, so Mr. Kennedy scooped up their children for the photographs. When they were done, one young girl, Kiki Davis, a third grader at Sacred Heart School, grabbed Mr. Kennedy’s hand and walked with him to the field house. She didn’t leave his side, sitting with him at the table as he signed books, playing with his phone which he gave her. It was a highlight of the day as the future belongs to children like Kiki. We engage in the long fight to safeguard this planet so that Kiki can grow up to enjoy clean water, fresh air and healthy soil, not just for herself but for her children and grandchildren. Mr. Kennedy showed by his example that it is not about us, the adults, as much as it is about the children. We need to stand up for them!
I have the blessing of meeting extraordinary people throughout my day, people who do the best to live lives of integrity and honor. On October 4th Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. gave an example of what passion, integrity and care for others looks like. He gave us all a gift by coming to spend some time in Waterfront South, in the City of Camden, New Jersey. I pray that his words, like seeds from a sower’s hand, find good soil in the hearts and minds of those gathered to hear him. May that seed sprout deep roots and bring forth a deep commitment to the care for this beautiful earth whose gloriousness on this day, in the mid-Atlantic region, reminds me of the bountiful generosity of our creative God.
God bless Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. God bless Cathy Nevins for daring to invite him to come. God bless each of you.
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
President, Board of Trustees
The Center for Environmental Transformation