Photo by Carl Peters
Left photo: A collection of crosses in the Roosevelt Plaza adjacent to Camden City Hall memorializes the city’s 53 homicide victims so far this year.
The window from my office overlooks Camden City Hall.
There, inscribed on the city’s tallest building, is a quote from the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the people perish.”
Maybe our vision is cloudy. Or perhaps our eyes have been averted. In any case, our relatively small city, with just 77,000 people across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, is, as of this writing, on a record-setting pattern. We have experienced 53 homicides so far this year. Much of this violence has taken place with little notice.
There are exceptions. The people of St. Anthony of Padua Church, along with other community leaders, have organized a collection of crosses in the Roosevelt Plaza adjacent to City Hall. In that small park a cross marks off each of those who died, signifying another widow, orphan or sibling who mourns. Each day after another murder a cross is planted during the noon hour as a sign of solidarity.
Another memorial to the victims of Camden’s violence takes place at the end of each year at our cathedral, organized by Sister Helen Cole of Guadalupe Family Services, a diocesan agency which serves Camden’s poor.
This vision to face the violence is a first step. Just for comparison sake: if New York City, for example, suffered from a rash of homicides in the same ratio as Camden, there would be more than 4,000 murders there this year. It is hard to imagine that kind of carnage would be allowed to continue with so little notice. It would rightly be seen as a national crisis afflicting our largest and most influential city.
Yet Camden is another matter. A malevolent new normal has emerged. What I hear from the people and pastors of our parishes is that the unrelenting violence has a long-term impact. Families routinely suffer trauma, resulting in depression, poor academic performance, and fear. These murders inflict a sorrow that permeates the entire community. This is a moral and a spiritual crisis which needs to be addressed by our spiritual leaders.
We also need to hear from our political leaders, particularly those in New Jersey. Their silence contributes to the sense that these murders are somehow normal and acceptable because they are taking place in Camden.
As Christians, we know that Jesus suffered a violent death, yet his resurrection points us toward the hope that somehow new life can come from this tragic situation. We are a people who claim the wood of the cross, the very object of violence. The memorial field of crosses next to Camden City Hall is our modern-day Golgotha. The trauma of our city is an invitation to be with Christ crucified.
As people of faith, we have no easy answers. Yet we cry out for vision, for new ways to address this crisis of violence, so that our people may no longer perish.