Last September, my 13-year-old daughter and I participated in the Middle School Friends Workcamp, run by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and facilitated by Arin Hanson. On a Friday afternoon we packed our sleeping bags and other gear and boarded the train. Arin picked us up at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and we set off together to participate in a service project that was truly a life-changing experience.
The MSF Workcamp operates out of a row house on 46th Street in West Philadelphia. Reading the program description, I thought I knew what to expect: we were going to be helping underprivileged people in the community fix and/or maintain their homes, which can involve gardening, painting, cleaning, etc.
Little did I know that we were about to experience a lot more than just simple handiwork. On Saturday morning we were divided into two groups. Arin took my group, consisting of three teenage girls; two adult friendly presences (or chaperones); the MSF coordinator, Elizabeth Walmsley; and the community leaders to a small public park in the Belmont section of Philadelphia where we met Sister Muhammed, whose late husband and Malcolm X founded the first mosque in Philadelphia. Sister Muhammed founded a community organization with the goals of beautifying the area, keeping out gentrification that makes neighborhoods unaffordable for low-income people, enabling the black community to open businesses in the area again, and returning Belmont to the thriving community it once was.
The person in charge of gardening was Betty Ferguson. With her community group, she built the only playground and basketball court in the entire neighborhood, thus giving children and youths an opportunity to gather and play outdoors. Our task was to help Betty clean up this small park—no easy task. This was not the regular garden cleanup one would expect. We had to deal with the most unappetizing trash of all kinds—half-empty beer cans, used tissues and condoms, decomposed and unidentifiable trash, and, worst of all, used drug needles. The latter gave rise to in-depth discussions with the participating MSF teens about drug use and its causes and consequences.
Faced with destruction, hopelessness, and despair of a magnitude none of our middle-schoolers had witnessed before, causing quite contradictory feelings and raising numerous questions, they were determined to stay at task.
Our next site was a private corner lot, owned by an elderly woman who could no longer care for it, but who wanted to return it to its former beauty for her and her neighbors to enjoy. The lot is known by the name Magnolia Garden, which in our minds meant a beautiful garden with magnolia trees that needed to be spruced up a little. When we first saw this lot with its hip-high weeds and trash strewn all over, we felt that the task was insurmountable. Nevertheless, we went to work, swallowing hard to overcome our disgust when faced with the worst pile of trash. Three hours later, we had filled about 20 huge garbage bags and were amazed that the seven of us actually managed to bring the lot into a condition where a gardening crew could turn it into a garden. The namesake of the garden, an old magnolia tree, is still there. Its main branches are dead, but there is new growth at the trunk—a sign of hope in this neighborhood of boarded-up houses and few glimpses of life.
We also met the owner of this lot, a delightful older woman, who had trouble walking due to an accident. She gave us some insight into her life and the history of the neighborhood. The most amazing fact we learned was that she and another woman are the only legal residents on this block—all the other people (adults and children of all ages) are squatters. This might explain why these obviously able-bodied people stared at us in amazement as we cleaned up the lot, and helped us to understand why they didn’t take pride in their neighborhood.
The workcamp ended Sunday with a tour through West Philadelphia and other parts of the city, including a worship service at a Baptist Church. This was a special Sunday, choir day, so we got to hear a variety of wonderful gospel choirs.
Having reflected on my experience, I realize that I took away a lot more from this weekend than I was able to give. I am inspired that Sister Muhammed and Betty Ferguson are both well-educated women who have the means to leave the community and lead comfortable lives elsewhere, yet they both have decided to stay and work to improve their neighborhood. Their commitment taught me the real meaning of community. I had to ask myself whether I would be able and willing to do the same. Most likely, I wouldn’t have the strength.
My daughter turned 13 during the workcamp weekend. When she was faced with the daunting tasks we had to deal with, she felt despair and deprived of a "real" birthday. But in the evening we had a small birthday celebration in the workcamp house, and she concluded that this was the best and most meaningful birthday she ever had.
A deeper meaning of the term community was also illustrated by the woman who owns Magnolia Garden. Her children have moved to other—nicer—parts of the country and have invited her to live with them, but she decided to stay put because she knows people in this neighborhood, where she has lived for 50 years, while in her children’s comfortable homes she would be lonely.
The worship service at the Baptist church taught me what a faith community can do for its members. We were welcomed with amazing warmth. This church and the faith it inspires were obviously the center of the parishioners’ lives, giving them guidance and hope for dealing with the challenges they face.
It seems that faith communities—and community in a broad sense—take on a deeper meaning and play a central role for people living on the fringes of society. The rest of us seem to replace these values—at least to a certain extent—with the luxuries and services we can afford to pay for. Outreaches like the MSF workcamp make it possible to reach across cultural boundaries, from a world of relative affluence to a world of need. Such experiences are essential to give meaningful expression to our core Quaker beliefs, and through participating in them, the lives of both volunteers and the community they serve are enriched and changed for the better.