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By Peggy Weber
When I told people I was journeying to Camden, New Jersey to interview Salesian Brother Mickey McGrath, the response was not a positive one.
Oh, people are impressed with the beautiful art work of Brother Mickey and they are excited that he will be visiting our diocese on May 21 and 22. However, most people said something to the effect, “Camden! Do you know that city is the murder capital of America?”
Honestly, I didn’t know much about Camden. To me it was a sign on the New Jersey Turnpike that told me I was closer to Delaware. It was a landmark on the many trips I made to Washington, D. C. when my daughter lived there.
My son said he mentioned my trip to someone from New Jersey and that person said, “Is your mother bringing a body guard for the interview?”
I mentioned all of this to Brother Mickey when we arrived at the downtown Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The big iron gates that protect the rectory certainly indicated that Camden might be living up to its reputation. The vacant convent and people sleeping on doorsteps also clued us into the state of things. And the lack of activity in the downtown area certainly showed us that Camden has difficulties.
Sure the aquarium along the riverfront looked busy. However, as one gazed across the Delaware River to Philadelphia it looked like the Emerald City of Oz in comparison to poor Camden.
“Camden is a very seriously challenged city. It had the highest murder rate in the country last year. And it is among the top five of poorest cities int he country, “said Brother Mickey from his Bee Still Studio.
Recent census figures show that the population had continued to decline to 77,000. About 52 percent of those live in poverty. The per capita income for Camden was $9,815 compared to the national average of $21,587.
You get the idea.
One could be depressed. However, I left Camden with great feelings of energy, inspiration and hope!
Well, there is Sacred Heart Parish in Camden. Under the leadership of Msgr. Michael Doyle, this parish provides a Catholic School, many creative programs and a voice for the voiceless.
Brother Mickey told me that he came to Camden because Msgr. Michael invited him and because they both believe “that beauty heals and everyone is attracted to beauty!
And, of course, there is Brother Mickey — creating great art work in a row house near the parish.
“My ministry as an artist is to create beauty and to help others see beauty, especially in the unexpected places,” he said.
He recently exhibited paintings of Camden that show this beauty — even in abandoned buildings.
And he wants people to know there is a heart to Camden.
“It’s not just all murder and mayhem. It’s families trying to make a go of it!”
Another positive sign in Camden is Hope works, founded by Jesuit Father Jeff Puthoff to provide technical skills to Camden’s youth.
Now I am not planning my summer vacation in Camden but I learned on a gray, overcast Saturday that there is a lot of good there and I am glad I went.
Follow Peggy Weber on Twitter @spunfromtheweb.