Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Touring Life: A Tale of Two Cities

This week has been quite unique... and it's only Tuesday.  In  the course of the last two days I've given two detailed tours of my neighborhood and of my [adopted] city.  These two tours were similar in a lot of ways- they were given via car, involved a whole lot of talking on my part (see: the sore throat I'm developing), and they gave me new insight into my life and the place in which I choose to live it.  They also both mark a collision of two worlds- a convergence of my life in Philly, which is tied up with my journey towards religious life, and my former life from college.  Really, those lives are the same, except they've happened to the same person on two separate plains.

This week two friends from college have come to visit me in Philly. The first, James, is now a theology teacher at a all-boys high school in Massachusetts.  He was traveling with a few of his students over their winter break on a service and advocacy trip that brought them to Philadelphia as they make their way circuitously to Washington D.C. learning about urban poverty, decline, and social injustice along the way.  I met the group (four students and one other chaperone) at the Covenant House of Philadelphia where they'd spent the morning learning about CH's mission and taking part in the organization's valuable work by sorting donations and helping around the site.  From there, I took the boys to get cheesesteaks, a Philadelphia must, and then we embarked on the second half of the day- a three hour tour.

To help illustrate the topics that the group had already heard about in Camden the day before and the state of Kensington, we began our journey in Mount Airy and moved our way down Germantown Avenue.  As long time readers of this blog would know, this is a journey I myself am familiar with and which was shared with me when I first arrived in the city as a volunteer.  It basically traces one of the oldest and longest roads in the city; it also traces the movement of wealth out of the city and the abandonment of certain neighborhoods over time.  As you ride down Germantown Avenue, you can watch the city change.  Homes that are majestic in one neighborhood are decrepit in the next. With every few blocks, the bars on the windows change shape, exchanging flourishes and adornments for practicality and brute strength.

Driving from Mount Airy through Germantown to Kensington provides a brief glimpse into this shift, and for the purposes of this tour (and James's group), our truncated excursion would do just fine in illustrating key points.

Once in Kensington, I showed the group the community center, explained our mission and programs, and then we walked our way around the block to the church.  After a brief tour and glimpse into the beauty of Visitation's upper church, we hopped back into the van to take a driving tour of Kensington.  Paradoxically there is a lot to see in Kensingotn but there also isn't. I asked the teenage girl manning the center's front desk what she thought I should share with the group on our tour and she honestly couldn't come up with anything, except for a little chuckle at the idea of a tour.

"The Coca-cola factory?" I suggested.
"Yeah, I guess." She replied.
 "How about the B St. Bridge or K&A?" I continued.
"Ummm that could work" she retorted half-heartedly.
"Anywhere else you think I should show them?" I asked in a last ditch effort.
"Not that I can think of, I think that's about it" she replied, her voice and expression conveying a genuine desire to help me out but also a real bewilderment at what exactly to show outsiders on a tour of the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, we toured the neighborhood- the murals, the social supports, the trash, the drugs, the factories, the developments, the devolution. We saw it all and before I knew it we were done. Leaving me off at the corner of Kensington and Lehigh, the boys continued on their journey headed towards Washington D.C.

Today, my friend Kristen arrived in Philadelphia.  Here for a conference, her visit is much different than James's and so was her tour.  Arriving at the center via the El this morning, she hopped in my car and we headed off to the Welcome Center. I pointed out the corner of Somerset and Kensington, sharing fun facts about heroin and tidbits picked up while living in the neighborhood. Soon enough conversation moved to mutual friends, updates on life, and just general enjoyment of each other's company as I showed her around my "new" home and got her settled in before I returned to work.

After work and dinner, Kristen and I headed out to explore the town.  Driving across North Philadelphia, we chatted less about the landscape than about life in general.  We then made our way down to the Schuylkill River, driving along MLK Boulevard, and making our way to the parking lot between the art museum and boat house row.  From there we walked the banks of the river.  I pointed out features of the skyline, gave fun facts about the city, and we soaked in the majestic beauty of the bustling urban landscape.

As we rounded our way around the Art Museum steps something struck me though. This city that I was showing Kristen was much different than the one I'd shown to James. Yet, they were (and are) the same city. Still, one felt more real to me than the other. I live in one, I visit the other.  Both inform the work that I do and how I choose to live my life.  I live in and work for Kensington so that one day it might enjoy the luxury of safety and civility so omnipresent at the Schuylkill's edge.  That's not to say it's always the safest, but you catch my drift.

My time with James and the boys was delightful, so was (and still is) my time with Kristen. But there is no mistaking that life has led me to a very interesting place. It is place that involves discomfort with the way things are, longing for the way they can be, and awareness of the reality of both of these things.  My time in college/before Philadelphia was blessed; indeed, without it I wouldn't have the wonderful friends I have today... and I probably never would have made my way to Philadelphia and the SSJs.

It's funny how journeys run together and even after they seemingly diverge, find themselves reunited. So it is that two tours and two visits have left me thinking about my own journey to the place I now call home.  Uniting the past with my present is a blessing, to express my knowledge of this community and also the connection I feel to it. In time, I have come to know this place and it has come to know me. With each new experience I uncover something new and discover that no matter how many times you've journeyed through a place there's always a fresh way of looking at it as you round familiar corners.

As we move into the season of Lent, the same could be said of our journeys through life: there's always a fresh way of looking at it as you round familiar corners.  Maybe it means being more present and aware of your surroundings, maybe it means being more available to your God and neighbor, and maybe, just maybe, it means journeying (for the next few weeks especially) with new eyes that see the old and bring it to bear on envisioning the new.


  1. This made me think about the tours I've given friends of my town. I've lived and, now, work in a city that is full of stark contrasts...much like those you described. I currently work in the inner city at a Catholic Worker. Some people see the city as dangerous. I see it as my home.