Chris Haw is an Eastern alum who started a brand new lifestyle after graduation. He moved to Camden, NJ and began working in the community there. Read the interview below to learn where he is now, and to see his reflection on his time here at Eastern.
Ellen Sherman: Why Camden? What got you there?
Chris Haw: I had been growing in Mother Teresa’s conviction for years that we need to find our own Calcuttas. And it so happened that my very random attendance at a campus seminar connected me with a Catholic priest from Camden, Michael Doyle. He spoke of a place that was suffering from blight, drug dealing, prostitution, job loss, intense poverty and murder. And I thought that seems just the place for me. I had heard “woe to you rich” and “the first will be last”, and so I, the rich, white, male, began preparing for abasement. So I asked the priest if they needed any help–even though connecting with the Catholic Church was low on my list–and he said yes. So, in my last year at Eastern, while getting arrested in protest against the war in Iraq and against Lockheed Martin, I began cleaning up an abandoned house in Camden in preparation to move in with several others.
ES: What is it exactly that you are doing there? Can you talk about the renovation project you are currently working on?
CH: We moved in without any obvious redevelopment plan or clear strategy. How could we have, especially at that age? Rather, it made more sense for us to enter the neighborhood with a sense of openness, hopefulness and service, and begin to understand it from within. For all of us who have lived here, constructive work has meant helping at Sacred Heart’s parochial school (K-8). I taught there for two years, but then ended up entering into a much more complex renaissance of learning manual labor to renovate houses, making pottery, as well as doing some Cabrini religious studies adjuncting, and writing–Jesus for President with Shane Claiborne, 2008, and now From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart is being released this very fall. Check it out please! And recently I’ve taken up my renovation work with a larger company, the Heart of Camden housing and development corporation. I’ve acquired about a half million dollars to gut renovate an old 1800’s firehouse into workshops and art studios. It’s a very daunting and patience-building process, but my hope is that we could get productive work back in the neighborhood. People are looking for work left and right, even as the black market’s top dollars tempt them.
ES: What is it like to move to a dangerous and poor city and completely immerse yourself in life there? Did you experience any culture shock?
CH: I could tell some pretty dark stories of my time here. Even after ten years, I don’t think I’ve gotten entirely used to the sirens, the street fights and yelling, the awkward tension that abides between dealers, prostitutes and common neighbors. It’s still a culture shock. My wife and I, just tonight, went out to a suburb for a picnic, and loved the park, the clean air, and kids playing soccer. And my wife said, “I feel like an outsider everywhere.” After all these years we still feel a sort of displacement. I think it is virtually impossible for us to completely inhabit a sense of home when we find crack bags in our kid’s sand box, or used condoms in our “park playground.” I wonder if it is “home” even to those for whom it is home. And yet, we also feel like alien visitors to that beautiful suburban Collingswood park. And so my wife joked, knowing that this is the time that self-congratulating Christians chime in with their Bible verses to pat themselves on the back–that Christians are to be “aliens to this world,” and so on. I’m not so sure. It remains a tension, to make a comfy place in this world and/or constantly dive into the darkness of hopelessness. We are all too aware of the self-delusion in praising one’s own existential suffering or dilemmas.
ES: What was your favorite hang-out spot at Eastern?
CH: Everywhere! That campus is among the most healing places in the world for me–especially on misty cool autumn nights. God abides there in a heavy yet fragile sense. I also spent a lot of time at the creek to the east of Gallup, in the woods, in silence, and loved it.
ES: Who was your favorite professor?
CH: Professor Hall, and particularly his Pain and Suffering course. That, without a doubt, was the most insanely life-changing, gripping, and soul-shattering discussion of grief (and the “death of God”) in my life. Nothing in my academic life–and I can sing high praises of numerous other topics and professors–changed me so fundamentally as that searing soul-work.
ES: What did you get out of your time here and what advice do you have for current students?
CH: My time at Eastern was profound and life-changing, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I think it can only be that for other students, if they make it that. So, my advice: 1) Study exceptionally hard. Be fascinated by this wild world and its history! I have no idea why many students pay big but don’t work big. Go talk to your professors outside class. Squeeze every last drop out of them; make them explain everything. They want to! 2) Work exceptionally hard outside the class too! I spent virtually every week cultivating a deep expression of community and study with the YACHT (Youth Against Homelessness and Complacency Today) Club and it benefitted me greatly. I would enjoy running on campus with friends. And I found a few friends that would “religiously” observe Sundays as Sabbath together with me, and after church we would go out on picnics at Valley Forge or the Wissahickon. It was sacred time that synthesized all our thought, study and writing into a calm and abiding sense of belonging and intimacy.