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Happy campers

Effective Compassion | Street ministry paves the way for kids to hear the gospel

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

CAMDEN, N.J. - Behold the magic enlarging wall! Anything you throw behind it comes back 10 times bigger!" a camp counselor declares, holding one side of a stretched-out bedsheet as a friend holds the other side. A 6-year-old runs up and receives a small soft-drink cup to toss over the sheet; a "Big Gulp" cup returns. Another tosses over a mini basketball and an NBA-sized one returns. Finally, a counselor spits over the sheet and a torrent comes back, dousing the entire audience of small campers. They shriek and roar with laughter.

"Camp Saved" is one of six camps (Camps Freedom, Grace, Peace, Faith, and Character) run by Urban Promise ministries and located in Camden, otherwise known as CMD: Cash/Money/Death. Some say CMD is the most dangerous city in America, and many problems are on display. Kids on their way to and from the camps pass by spots where men in Hummers and Lexuses buy drugs, fast-aging blonded women in tight shorts and high heels glance nervously out of the corners of their eyes, and others die in drive-by shootings. Graffiti-written in dripping blood red on a roll-down metal storefront are the words, "RIP Shelly."

The camps ran for six weeks this summer in church basements or schoolyards, with young teachers and college students from the United States, Canada, Scotland, and Ireland in charge. A team of "street leaders," area high-school students selected through a rigorous application process that requires them to have demonstrated leadership and responsibility, helped the counselors run the camps, with three counselors each day devising activities for their campers.

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One day on the ground floor of Camp Saved, a handful of students sat around a folding table coloring in "stained glass" pictures. Meanwhile, outside, children sat in a circle playing "duck-duck-splash." Upstairs, a college counselor from Birmingham, England, put pats of butter into plastic cups of powdered sugar, and the kids beat the mixture with spoons to make frosting for the cupcakes they helped bake the previous day. They delightedly spooned gobs of frosting into their mouths.

Middle-schoolers in other camps had the option of specializing in martial arts, drama, or sports. Some become Bible Buddies, members of small groups that meet one afternoon per week, or go to Camp Nights each week, often returning to campsites with their families for dinner and fun.

The street leaders also take classes on money management, take an SAT prep course during the school year, and attend mandatory group meetings where their performance is evaluated. One street leader, Carissa Fleming, is a 15-year-old single mom with a toddler son who has asthma and requires four medications each day. She is studying to be a nurse's assistant.

Leonard Shoponhove, another street leader, is a Nigerian-American whose father chose the last name as an Americanization of the author Schopenhauer's name. Leonard plans to be president of the United States some day and proclaims to visitors, "Remember me, Leonard: Soon you're gonna be payin' his rent with your tax dollars." He wants to become president "to help the poor . . . help stop the spread of AIDS, help people get clean water, and other things like that." Asked what he would do for the rich, Leonard thinks for a moment and then looks up smiling: "I'll try to get them involved with the helping."

A third street leader, Tony Vega, is studying at Eastern University to be a history teacher. He said becoming a street leader is the first step toward real spiritual growth for many older campers, since "it's a lot tougher to motivate the older camp kids to get excited about God." Part of street-leader training is a retreat in which there is an open-mike time for the kids to share their testimonies. "At first, it's dead silent, but then people get tired of the awkwardness," Vega said. "Soon, everyone's cryin' and prayin'."

Albert Vega, Tony's twin brother, also is one of Urban Challenge's classic success stories. Age 5: Albert sneaks on the van to attend Urban Promise's "Camp Victory" summer program. Age 7: He comes daily to the North Camden after-school program for homework assistance. Age 14: Albert becomes an Urban Promise street leader, helping out at a summer day camp and learning job skills; he also grows in faith and finds a mentor. Age 18: He receives a scholarship to Eastern University with the goal of returning to Camden after graduation and teaching high-school history. Now age 21: Albert, a college senior, is in charge of "Camp Grace," a six-week camp in North Camden, where he was raised and managed to avoid falling into a life of drugs and crime.

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