Affordable housing is a social justice issue, speakers say

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CHERRY HILL — Here at St. Mary Parish Hall on Monday evening, July 20, a crowd numbering 100-plus gathered to hear about social justice issues affecting the community and how they could help, in the words of one of the presenters, “build the kingdom of God on Earth.”

The event, “Building Communities in Camden,” is the second in a series of talks sponsored by St. Mary’s Social Justice Ministry. The night focused on the current attempts to revitalize Camden City, including creating affordable housing.

The evenings are designed “to educate, and make our parishioners aware of issues relating to social justice, whether they’re here or around the world,” said Tom Clark of St. Mary’s Social Justice Ministry.

“Affordable housing is a way to return to people a sense of hope in the future,” remarked Larry DiPaul, director of the diocesan Office of Social Justice Ministry.

Introducing the evening’s topic to the audience, DiPaul started with Luke’s Gospel, 7:11-15, which recounts Jesus restoring life to the son of a widow. Without first a husband, and, now, a son, DiPaul stressed, the woman would have been homeless, as in Jesus’ time, women couldn’t own property. Jesus, by raising her son back from the dead, restored in her a sense of hope, that things would be OK.

With affordable housing, Catholics can do the same to local residents, he said.

Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill that would require affordable housing in every community, saying that the law “lays the groundwork for us to reach our ultimate goal of ensuring that housing is available to all New Jerseyans, which ultimately will enhance the quality of life for everyone in this state.”

Three speakers addressed the crowd.

Msgr. Robert McDermott, pastor of St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden, pointed out that, in some cases, individuals “create institutes and structures that benefit us, but hurt others.”

In some cases, he said, affordable housing is seen as a way to lump impoverished families into one community, away from more affluent families, who feel threatened about needy families living in their same community, and the belief that the community would change for the worse.

Msgr. McDermott urged the gathered to remember Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical, Caritas In Veritate, which calls for a more equal and just society, and reach out in love and support to the poor: “Man’s earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God.”

In 1985, Msgr. McDermott started the St. Joseph Carpenter Society, an organization founded to assist families in improving their quality of life, and dedicated to creating safer neighborhoods, through homeowner education, housing development, and community organizing. Currently, he is chairperson.

For Josh Chisholm, executive director of Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP), the night was about “building the kingdom of God.” CCOP consists of local congregations dedicated to transforming social conditions to raise up communities and families in Camden City.

Chisholm recalled one night visiting a poor family in Camden, who had multiple locks on their door, in reaction to community violence. It is taking the risk to “go through these locked doors, and experiencing people where they are at,” that is important, he said.

Also speaking was Douglas Wagner, executive director of Metro Camden Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit housing ministry which has refurbished 36 homes and has built eight houses from the ground-up in the city of Camden. He spoke on the beginnings of the international Habitat for Humanity project, started by Millard and Linda Fuller in 1976, zeroing in on the idea of “partnership housing,” where those needing shelter would come together with volunteers to build simple residencies.