By Odhran O’Carroll ’12
Over February break, I was lucky enough to be one of seven students and two chaperones to go to the Global Encounter trip to Camden, New Jersey. Before going, I didn’t know much about Camden; only the things I had heard in the papers and on TV. Camden is a city of about 77,000, and is the second poorest city in the country. The high school dropout rate is 70%, and 50% of Camden’s population is illiterate. The average income of a family of four is only $18,000, and one out of every five homes is abandoned. Also, 42% of the population can be said to be addicted or recovering from an addiction. Camden is often featured on TV, and is portrayed as a miserable and dark city. This trip showed me that Camden is much more than the city we read about in the papers. It is full of hope and passionate people who want to help their community.
Our group stayed at the Romero Center in Camden. The Romero Center was named for Archbishop Oscar Romero, a social justice activist who was martyred for speaking out. Each day the Center gave us several work sites to choose from. Some of the sites include Francis House (a drop-in center for people infected with HIV), Generations Plus (a day center for the elderly and people with mental illness), South Jersey Food Bank, and Abigail House Nursing Home. At these sites, we did more than just help out. We got to speak and interact with the people who were a part of these programs. I learned so much from the people I met and spoke with. A lot of people I spoke with seemed happy just to have somebody to talk with. One of the staff members at the Romero Center told me that many of the people we met did not have anybody who cared for them, or who spoke with them. They were lonely, and happy to have someone to play bingo with or give advice to.
One of the most powerful experiences we had as a group was at a place called Tent City. Tent City is a community of about thirty homeless people who live in tents by the Cooper River. Gino, the “mayor”, has helped to create a form of government for Tent City. Gino was an incredibly deep person and an enthusiastic speaker. He started to tell us about his life and all the mistakes he had made. He used to have a good job, a house, a wife and kids. He lost it all when he lost his job and got addicted to drugs. Gino told us how fast life could turn bad, and that we need to keep ourselves out of trouble and in school if we want a good life. After listening to hearing Gino speak, it made me realize many things. Homelessness can happen to anyone. A bad break or illness can put someone on a downward spiral in life that could lead to becoming homeless. Gino talked about how sad it was that in the richest country in the world, we have people living in tents by the side of the road. Words can’t describe how I felt listening to Gino in Tent City. I had mixed feelings; part of me was angry at the fact that poverty is everywhere, and another part of me was sad because I knew that poverty would never be completely solved.
Going on Global Encounter in Camden was truly one of the best decisions I ever made. In the Romero Center, I had my stereotypes shattered and my view on poverty changed. I know that all of us were transformed by the experiences we had where we went way outside of our comfort zones. My view of Camden was also greatly altered. We met so many amazing people who just wanted to help their community. These people taught us that we could not do much alone, but if we brought Romero’s message back home, we could accomplish a lot of God’s work.
Oscar Romero’s work in social justice was amazing, and this quote may be his most inspirational: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation realizing that… We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”