Saturday, September 24, 2011

Seeing the Underbelly of Philadelphia

My nerves were shot Tuesday morning. I have been spoiled this far in my first year at college: waking up incredibly early at 8:40 for my nine o’clock class. Rising for a reason non-Jack-schedule oriented was something new; Tuesday morning also marked the start of my complete first month spent away from home in my environment. Monumental, Tuesday was the gateway from my newly nested home to the bare, gray world of North Philadelphia.
                Service Learning was one of my highest reasons for coming to Saint Joseph's University. In order to continue a path of service for (and now with-as the Jesuits have put it) others, I have been anxious to begin. Having the luxury of choosing where in Philly I would go, there has been nothing but bright lights, the beautiful downtown area, and cheery SEPTA workers. Home back in Virginia was nothing like this except for the shared sense of nonchalance that came with my absent-minded consumerism on the weekends. I have to admit that the cool weather this past weekend set a pretty scene among the gridlock, but a cold front must have moved in as Tuesday saw nothing but rain.
                I drove to Mercy Neighborhood Ministries. Consequently, my perspective of my new home and its surroundings drastically changed. In a car there is safety, comfort, and protection from our external world. All of these qualities could be seen in a positive light, but having not driven for a month, I had become quite comfortable walking to classes, to SEPTA, to eat, to survive. Now, the car gave me status, a leg up on any of my neighbors in the community that had to still walk. I subconsciously judged in the slightest of ways as our 35 mile per hour speed allowed for us to zoom by anyone else I would have had to look in the eye, say hello, or walk awkwardly by without even a nod. Cut off from my surroundings as I drove to engage with the community, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach.

                My father pointed in the paper to the new curfew that was set six weeks ago in Philadelphia within our sun-filled family room. I knew that community service would enable me to go at the beast head on when I reached Philadelphia; single-handedly solve all the city’s issues through Jesuit tradition! But this past Tuesday sang a different tune; one of bleakness and a never ending depth. It must have been the clouds as we drove over the Delaware River, which in my mind, had been the line drawn between my home and the great unknown.
                My two service partners, Graziella and Earl, sat in our gold Ford Focus as we snaked through elevated cemeteries. Eerie. I felt twice as far away from home, wherever that was now, as we passed garbage-strewn streets. Litter, shady sections of cities, and the hair standing on the back of my neck have all been past experiences. It irked me, nonetheless, when the realization hit me that I would be serving here.
                I have done PACEM meals, I have worked with kids with chronic illnesses, and I have volunteered for the Special Olympics. None of the above had placed me into the direct area where my new community partners lived. Frustrated when the MapQuest directions ended with us a block away from our actual destination (without me knowing our proximity,) I panicked. Ask Graziella or Earl. I did not want to park and walk aimlessly in the hope of finding our endpoint.
                Once inside, we had a second set of doors to go through. But there was a doorbell that rang at the front desk. Again, this was a small difference from something I am familiar with back home. As to the people inside, they had nothing but smiles. Strong smiles. There was no falsehood in their words, especially Ms. Barbara, who toured us around. Leaving, I could not decide whether the five and six year olds’ smiles out did the elderly’s, or vice versa, but both rekindled my passion to get involved.

                But our thirty-six minute meet and greet had us back in the Focus sooner than we expected as I timed every little detail for our trip next Tuesday. I took note of where the young children would walk to school after coming to Mercy Neighborhood in the morning. I saw several people out and about. I wished that the immediate area had somehow cheered up as the sun came out, but I realized that dedication and diligence was more needed than wishful thinking.
                I had the luxury of sitting co-pilot on the return trip. We passed many abandoned buildings. It seemed as if every other shop was boarded up. I recognized the SEPTA emblem at a bus stop. There is a connection between the community across the river and us university students, and it is more than the transportation system.

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