April 2nd 2021
“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14
“How’d you end up working in North Camden?”
Cross-legged, shoulder to shoulder on a crowded office floor, sat 15 curious Princeton Seminary students. Their annual weekend retreat to UrbanPromise included visits to local non-profits and meeting ministry leaders. This particular Saturday—an audience with Father Jeff, the founder of HopeWorks.
“Just like you I was in seminary at Boston College,” chuckled my Jesuit friend. “One Easter weekend I came to visit some missionaries who worked in the city.”
He paused, looked at the wide-eyed students, and shared a story about a unique Easter tradition in North Camden.
“On Good Friday a number of the local churches re-enact the last hours of Jesus’ life,” he reminisced. “A big wooden cross is carried throughout the neighborhood streets and planted at different locations. Scriptures are read. Prayers shared. People dress up. It’s a somber, reflective journey.”
As the procession continued that particular day, followers slowly dropped away as the event drew to its conclusion. Our young seminarian stayed to the last stop.
“We end up at a vacant lot just around the corner,” he motioned out the office window. “The temperature was dropping, but a small circle of people continued to huddle around this big wooden cross. The moment hit me unlike anything I’d ever experienced.”
Father Jeff’s memory vividly recalled the details of the moment as if it happened, not a decade ago, but a few hours earlier. He recalled the broken glass, trash and needles under his shoes. A row of abandoned homes, a burned out factory silhouetted the afternoon sky.
“Even though everything around the cross suggested despair and decay,” he reminisced, “here was a committed group of people praying—claiming life, hope, peace, healing, restoration....resurrection. Seemed I was in the presence of something special.”
Jeff gave a contemplative pause, then ushered his final words: “I decided I needed to be around these kinds of people.”
After graduation, Jeff packed his belongings, moved to State Street on the north side Camden and joined that faith-full little community. He bought one of those abandoned row homes, restored it, created an oasis for youth and birthed a wonderful organization called HopeWorks—a group who continue to play a significant role in equipping youth with computer and life skills. “I knew nothing about computers,” he mused. “I just learned alongside the kids. That made us partners.”
This is what Good Friday people do. Good Friday people move and act in the promise of Easter.
For many, this has been a challenging year. There’s lots of reasons to despair, be anxious and retreat in fear. That’s why this day is so important in the Christian calendar—especially right now. Our story begins with betrayal, an unfair trial and a horrific act of violence. Good Friday people can acknowledge difficult stories, yet refuse to retreat and surrender to the caustic voices of cynicism and defeat. Good Friday people can absorb life’s pain, yet still choose to act in faith—even when the tomb is sealed and all seems lost.
For me, that’s why we still call this holy day good. I’ve witnessed the remarkable good that can arise from remarkably bad situations. Every day I’m awed by the extraordinary generous lives of ordinary people who compassionately embrace those overwhelmed by life-eroding forces. In our world’s most challenging communities I meet saints who labor with persistent Hope where many have lost hope. Ordinary lives, empowered by God’s spirit, huddled around the cross—claiming there’s a better story coming.
Easter expresses itself in new ways with each generation—birthed anew for all who say yes to the God of this day. As the prophet Isaiah beautifully reminded, “God is doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (43:19). Yes, a new thing is happening! Let’s be part of it.
Rise up, Good Friday Friends—