Wednesday, June 1, 2011

This Place Matters.

My neighborhood gets a bad wrap. Lots of people would qualify it as a "bad" neighborhood. In fact, for the longest time, the Philadelphia Police referred to the area I live in as the "Badlands" because of the prevalence of drugs, violence, and decay within Kensington.

Now, I can't write a stunning defense of my neighborhood. Nor can I deny that the ill-repute of the area is based on some amount of fact. It is true. Drugs, violence, and poverty are a stark reality. When I ride my bike to work in the morning I have to dodge broken glass in the street and avoid running over used hypodermic needles. These same needles haunt my dreams and despite all the fears that I could have (being mugged/ robbed, sexual violence, verbal assault, drugs, junkies), it is the needles that have come to occupy a large part of my sub-conscience. When I ride my bike, I whiz past drug dealers and prostitutes, navigating (what I've learned) is the heroin capital of the United States. When I walk to work, I need to be ever-mindful of what is up ahead, crossing the street when necessary and remaining aware of what blocks I use to make my way to work. Surely, this place is the Badlands.

Yet, no matter how many times I hear it said, I can't bring myself to call my neighborhood bad.

I once told a group of college volunteers from Kansas City that this neighborhood was a little slice of heaven; I then proceeded to have them do the grueling work of sorting bags of donated clothes and emptying, organizing, and restocking a food pantry that feeds over a hundred families a month but is effectively the size of a postage stamp. Weeks later a small envelope came for me in the mail. Inside was a university emblazoned card with a little notes from each member of the group. Some talked about the great experience, but few addressed the work they had done. Instead they addressed the community- "Thanks for having us this week! It was awesome to see your little "slice of Heaven" in Kensington. There's so much beauty there and seeing your pride for the place was inspiring."

Among everything we had done that day, everything that should have made them overlook the community, they remembered the beauty of the neighborhood and took it back home with them. And so now a piece of Kensington lives on in Kansas City... not the part that makes people cringe when I tell them where I live, but the part that shines with life, community, and hope.

A piece of Kensington lives in me too. I've realized in my time here that I will never be a part of Kensington. I can live among the row homes; I can learn the language and the customs; I can even walk these streets, but no matter how empty they seem and how well I know the lay of the land, I will always stand out, people will always know I am on their block. Still, Kensington lives in me.

The first time I came to the neighborhood, I knew it would capture my heart and that the work I'd do here would have a meaning all its own. Really, I didn't have a choice in the matter. It was going to happen. Going into this final month of service, I realize that it has happened.

May was a flurry of activity- home visits, new volunteers, construction of a new food pantry, a Quizzo fundraiser put together in two weeks, and a community cookout that fed nearly 150 people in an hour and a half. In the midst of all of that, Karen, the director of the center, and I sat down to look towards the future. Such planning though requires a healthy look back at what has been accomplished. For me, this provided an opportunity to witness to the great strides that our community center has made and to the community from which we have drawn so much life. It also put into perspective my own work at the center.

This is work I enjoy. It is work that excites me and at the same time exhausts me. That's what happens when you put your whole heart into something... when you have faith in something, in a mission and a community. That's why I can't call this neighborhood the Badlands.

Why? Because this place matters. That's what I thought as I picked up a piece of chalk and I drew 8-foot tall letters on the pavement outside the community center. This place matters because it is someone's home... it's a lot of someones' home. People who can't imagine living anywhere else, for reasons both good and bad. This place matters because the people here are working to make a difference. It matters because it is the salt of the earth. It is grounded in reality and flavored by beauty found in the nitty-gritty of life. It defies what anyone says about it or wants to believe about it and when the light hits just right, the badlands shine like nothing you've ever seen.

This place matters for reasons I can't explain. It matters to each kid who finds solace in the halls of our community center, to every family that finds comfort in the faith nurtured beneath the double spires of Visitation, and to every person who discovers when they enter our doors that they aren't bad because of where they live but that they matter.

Visitation BVM Parish (where I currently work) is vying for a $25,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. One of a hundred finalists from across the country, Visitation must now garner the most votes in order to claim the prize. Voting lasts for the entire month of June and is based on individual votes (determined by e-mail addresses). Please visit our web page on the This Place Matters Community Challenge website to learn more about Viz, to register, and to VOTE for Visitation!!

If you have multiple e-mail addresses, register each and vote. If you have a blog, re-post this call for votes. And if you have friends (I know you do), PLEASE get them to vote too! Get the word out- the work that Visitation does is too good to be overlooked and is in dire need of funding! Help us show the world that This Place Matters!

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    We have recently become aware of your blog through “Catholic Media Promotion Day” on We have recognized that your vision of uniting our Catholic faith with the way we live is compatible with our non profit organization, and we were wondering if you would be willing to do a spotlight on our work and service. We are a non profit network of over 200 faith based organizations, and help volunteers and those interested in long time service be paired up with the program that best suits them. We have a directory, RESPONSE, both online at our website, and also in hard copy.

    Thank you for considering us and God bless,

    Catholic Volunteer Network