The August after I graduated from Gonzaga I found myself in Newark, New Jersey, as a Jesuit Volunteer and was connected with an incredible organization, Greater Newark Conservancy (GNC). Studies have shown that having more natural beauty in urban areas lowers crime rates, improves public health, lowers pollution, and has a myriad of other indirect benefits to the community. Through the promotion of environmental stewardship, GNC works to improve the quality of life in one of the country's most dismissed, forgotten, and needy urban communities.
Seeing the intense poverty in Newark quickly created a deep desire to be sure that my decisions were reflective of my commitment to both the city and the natural world. Thus when the holiday season approached I opted for a quieter way to celebrate, and stayed in Newark alone rather than fly back to the west coast. Compared to any other form of transportation (car, train, bus, etc), flying requires considerably more natural resources to make the trip. Were I to fly the 2,500 miles back home, not only would I be taking advantage of a privilege I had that much of the local community did not, I would also be contributing to the pollution that disproportionately affects impoverished communities more than the rest of the US population. It seemed contradictory to the reason I was there in the first place.
And so I found myself with a week of vacation, finding creative ways to spend my time. Somehow I had gotten my hands on the movie "What Would Jesus Buy," a sobering yet humorous documentary about the effects of consumerism during the holiday season on our local businesses, our wallets, and our planet. In the film Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir travel the country by bus, speaking out (or is "singing out" more appropriate?) against the mainstream approach to the Christmas season. The documentary offers absurd demonstrations by Rev. Billy, sickening statistics of the vast amounts of waste Americans create during this time of year, as well as anecdotal stories from people who I believe to understand the holiday at its deepest meaning. At one point an older woman talks about how incredibly grateful she was for the one gift she was given each year growing up, which was often something functional, like boots. This has since become the movie I watch every year to get me in the Christmas spirit.
One of the challenges of staying on the east coast was wondering what was happening at home without me. But rather than dwell on what I was missing out on, I tried to focus on the opportunities I was able to take advantage of by remaining in Newark that I otherwise would have missed. I went for several long walks throughout my neighborhood, making myself a visible presence. I came to realize that my intention in these walks was to tell this city that although the common perspective in our country was that this place was dirty, miserable, and may as well be abandoned, that I was one person wanting a real relationship with it. I was someone who did not want to leave it behind.
Honestly, I initially doubted the effectiveness of this statement. But weeks later it became clear that the neighborhood recognized me as an integrated part of their community. Riding the bus or walking home from GNC, I began meeting people who would comment that they had seen me in the area, and would strike up conversations with me. These welcoming gestures were not something that all Jesuit Volunteers who lived in Newark had experienced.
When we think of our perfect way to spend Christmas, we usually don't think of spending it alone, watching documentaries, and going for walks in empty streets. But as I look back to my year in Newark and what it meant to become a part of that community there really is no other way I wish I would have spent it.
After two years of serving as a Jesuit Volunteer, Anthony was hired onto the staff of JVC Northwest where he walks with current JVs as they strive to bring justice to the communities they live in. Given his passions, he is very excited to be a part of an organization with "Ecological Justice" as one of its core values.