Where Everyone is Neighbor

As some of you know, I recently left my ministry at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey to pursue graduate studies at the Boston College School of Theology & Ministry. Before my departure, I wrote a piece about the Center in honor of the Year of St. Joseph, which has just been published in the Catholic Star Herald.

Even after 120 years of service in Camden, the Sisters of Saint Joseph were the new kids on the block when they arrived in 2017 in the Cramer Hill section of the city. Sent by their congregation, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, a group of sisters set out to establish a new, sponsored ministry in the city: the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Center.

“For all our ministry in the city of Camden, we as a congregation decided that to continue our commitment to those who are materially poor and marginalized, it was important we establish a physical place for ministry,” explains Sister Bonnie McMenamin, SSJ, the SSJ Neighborhood Center’s founding director. “As Sisters of Saint Joseph, we are called to love God and to love our neighbors without distinction. That means encountering Jesus in every neighbor we meet and seeking to foster a sense of community in and among the neighbors and neighborhoods we serve.”

Over the last four years, that is exactly what the SSJ Neighborhood Center has done. With programming that ranges from a food pantry and prayer groups to English as a Second Language classes and sewing and crocheting lessons, the center is focused on bringing people together to provide opportunities for connection, enrichment and empowerment. Serving primarily adults and families, the center provides a safe space for neighbors to learn and grow together.

“This is a place where all are welcome,” Sister Clarisa Vázquez, SSJ, outreach coordinator at the center, says. “Our neighbors come from various cultural backgrounds that wouldn’t normally mix. With a common goal of learning English or a sewing project, they grow together, they help one another and they develop relationships far beyond the classes they share.”

This was evident when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the center’s classes in spring 2020. “We moved the classes we could online,” Sister Bonnie recalls. “Our neighbors wanted to be together, even if that meant learning how to do so virtually!”

For many, that meant learning how to use a laptop computer. For volunteer teachers, that meant adapting lessons to a digital format. “The pandemic put all of us to the test,” says Sister Colleen Gibson, SSJ, coordinator of services. “Yet, God provided in every instance. Students and teachers adapted and learned together. Demand on our food pantry expanded, but so did the generosity of our neighbors near and far.”

The center’s monthly food distribution has grown exponentially since 2017. What began as a pantry that fed 14 families on a monthly distribution day now feeds more than 200 families every third Wednesday of the month. The pantry distributes food provided by the Food Bank of South Jersey as well as donations from parishes, religious education programs, community groups, and individuals from throughout the Camden and Philadelphia areas.

“We could never do what we do on our own,” Sister Mary Berryman, SSJ, coordinator of the food pantry, explains. The center is reliant on volunteers to help serve neighbors, teach classes and provide goods for distribution. Beyond the food pantry, donors help provide diapers and baby clothing for families in need, new and used household goods for the center’s “sharing markets,” and financial assistance for those seeking rent and utility assistance.

“Our mission is to unite ‘neighbor to neighbor and neighborhood to neighborhood,’” Sister Colleen adds. “We see that come alive when a neighborhood teenager strikes up a conversation with a student volunteering from Camden Catholic High School, or a neighborhood family gives gardening tips to the family from Philadelphia who shares a plot next to them in our community garden.”

“Here, everyone is a neighbor,” Sister Bonnie says as she reflects on the center’s roots and mission. “Our love of God draws us into union with all people.”

In this Year of Saint Joseph, Sister Bonnie takes solace in the example of Saint Joseph that is lived out at the SSJ Neighborhood Center. “Like Joseph, our service is humble and often hidden. We give ourselves in the service of God’s love. We create a space where no one is turned away, where there is always ‘room at the inn.’”

Together with their neighbors, the sisters are helping to create a space where all are welcome. They, after all, know how it feels to be new to a neighborhood and hope they can make room for each neighbor to flourish in the fullness of God’s love in community.