MLK events in Camden bring together youth from all walks of life

CRAMER HILL- Community Organizing

Organizations all over Camden had MLK Day events on Monday. But one church decided to take a different approach to honoring and remembering Dr. King.

About 80 students (middle school through college) from around the region met at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Camden’s Cramer Hill neighborhood for a day of community organizing, instead of service.

“We feel that community service dilutes” Dr. King’s mission and message to the people, said Fr. Jud Weiksnar, pastor at St. Anthony of Padua.

So, instead of performing service, youths and church leaders met with some city and county officials to ask about abandoned homes and illegal dumping in Camden. They also walked the neighborhood to see the results of earlier group leadership, such as a community garden and the finally vacant field where the rundown Ron’s House once stood and which will soon be the site of a playground.

“It was a really unique experience for the kids,” Weiksnar said.  Dr. King “wanted people to get organized and work for justice.”

 BERGEN SQUARE- MLK House

In the middle of Camden’s Bergen Square neighborhood, among rows of vacant and boarded-up homes, 940 Newton Ave. looks no different.

But to the few dozen people who showed up today, including Young Urban Leaders founder and School Board Member Sean Brown, the house is special. According to legend, the rowhouse was Martin Luther King Jr.’s residence while he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester in the late 1940s.

On Monday, Brown and a Who’s Who of young Camden leaders – including Felix Moulier, a chair of one of the District Council Collaborative Boards; Keanna Ralph, who served as spokeswoman for former Mayor Gwendolyn Faison; Micah Khan, of the Nehemiah Group; Elton Custis, former City Council candidate –- ripped open the boarded-up door and started cleaning up the house.  The partially burnt shell will be transformed into office space for the Young Urban Leaders, a group of community-involved Camden residents roughly between the ages of 20 and 35, to host seminars and help Camden youths with college applications.

Once Heart of Camden receives the title for the property, it will turn it over to the Young Urban Leaders. It is currently going through the foreclosure process.

“It will be a shrine and inspiration to all of us,” Fr. Michael Doyle, of Sacred Heart Church, told the crowd standing at the house, near a giant pile of debris.

For the record, I checked with local historians Paul Schopp and Phil Cohen to get confirmation on Dr. King’s stay in Camden. They both said that unless there is concrete proof (i.e.- phone records, genealogy reports)  they aren’t buying the claim that the future civil rights leader lived in Camden.

“As far as I know, Martin Luther King Jr. never stepped foot in Camden,” Schopp said.

Cohen went further and while I was on the phone with him, he checked a phone book from  1947, when Dr. King was in seminary (Cohen loves this stuff, check out his website which is full of fun Camden history-- http://www.dvrbs.com/) and found that a Russell Pierce lived at 940 Newton then. So unless someone can prove a connection between Pierce and Dr. King, he isn’t buying it the claim either.

I told Sean Brown, the founder of Young Urban Leaders, and he agreed that he does not have concrete proof, but he is confident that Dr. King did live there at some point.

Nevertheless, Brown and company got together on a frigid day to honor Dr. King and start transforming a dirty, charred house into a community gathering spot.

“Martin Luther King Day is a day to honor his legacy by doing service work around the country,” Brown said. “We agreed it would be the perfect day to start restoring the house.”