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SOLACE: Seeds of Hope’s co-founder Brenda Antinore (right) waits to meet with women brought to Bethel Deliverance Church in Camden after a sting operation along Broadway.
Tim Hawk/South Jersey Times/Landov
SOLACE: Seeds of Hope’s co-founder Brenda Antinore (right) waits to meet with women brought to Bethel Deliverance Church in Camden after a sting operation along Broadway.

Street savvy

Hope Award | East Region winner Seeds of Hope has won credibility in a brutal Camden neighborhood

Issue: "Into thin air," Aug. 23, 2014

CAMDEN, N.J.—On Broadway, the main drag in Camden, N.J., junkies high on heroin wander insensibly between cars and abandoned townhouses. Right across the Delaware River from thriving Philadelphia, Camden is a city that never recovered from either deindustrialization or the 1980s crack epidemic. While nearby Philadelphia, New York, and Atlantic City have stamped out their drug epidemic, users from those cities come to Camden where the drug market is the only thriving part of its economy.

How bad has it become? In one 2012 incident, four police officers attempted to arrest a suspected drug dealer, but a crowd of more than 100 attacked the officers and released the suspected dealer. In 2013 Camden dissolved its own police force, which didn’t have enough officers to respond to 911 calls, and on most nights had only 12 officers patrolling the city. The county has recreated it as a nonunionized force and hired more officers, but crime still rules: A police officer I interviewed had just come from the funeral of another officer’s son who had been murdered in the city. Most of the people 24-year police veteran Elizer Agron grew up with in Camden are either dead or on drugs.

“There’s nothing good here. Nothing at all,” said Shannon, a 24-year-old drug addict in Camden who supports her habit through prostitution. “When people ask me about Camden, the easy way to sum it up is sex, drugs, and murder.” A prostitute was strangled in April behind an abandoned car wash just off of Broadway. Shannon has had many close calls. Recently, one client stole her money, beat her, and broke her cheek in four places. She saw her own blood everywhere and thought she was going to die, but after three days in the hospital returned to her hard life.

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Naïve ministries won’t survive in Camden, but Seeds of Hope is different: It’s so street savvy that the police department sometimes calls the ministry staff when making arrests. “The chief, he knows the problems in the city weren’t going to be solved with handcuffs and guns,” said Seeds of Hope’s co-founder Brenda Antinore, a former high-school teacher. Her husband Bill was a successful lawyer, and they had three children and a nice suburban home—but both became addicted to cocaine and drove into Camden to buy drugs.

Police busted the couple in public fashion in 1995, with media coverage compounding the humiliation. Bill, convicted of embezzlement connected to his drug problem, lost his law license and went to prison for 15 months: His dad, a Philadelphia police officer, never spoke to him again. Brenda got three years’ probation. Bill came to faith in Christ, Brenda deepened her own faith, and their marriage survived. In 1999, after prison, Bill partnered with a local church in Camden to start South Jersey Aftercare, a discipleship ministry for former prisoners. Fast-talking Brenda, familiar with drug addiction, began building relationships with the drug-addicted prostitutes on Broadway, and that developed into the ministry She Has A Name.

Seeds of Hope—the umbrella organization for ministries to prisoners, prostitutes, and the poor—grew as the years passed. It now has four townhouses that serve as Christian halfway homes, staffed with former prisoners who mentor men freshly released, and Bill also goes into prisons to hold Bible studies. Another arm of the ministry, My Father’s Hands, seeks out the poor and homeless through street outreach and meals. On Saturday mornings, Seeds of Hope hosts a breakfast where around 300 former prisoners, the homeless, prostitutes, and drug dealers come and eat and hear worship music. Proceeds from the Seeds of Hope thrift store help to fund the ministry, and men in the halfway house can work at the store.

The Antinores’ background of addiction gives them credibility with people on the street, and the years they have worked in South Camden have given them credibility with law enforcement. When Sgt. Agron, who also serves as a chaplain on the force, first heard from Bill Antinore about Seeds of Hope, he rolled his eyes. “Here goes another person who’s just going to waste my time,” he remembers thinking. He tested Bill, asking him to show up to an event or help with something: Bill followed through every time. Today Agron says, “We would be at a loss without this ministry in place.”

Officers contact the ministry when they arrest a prostitute, and the prostitute is given an option to get help from Seeds of Hope—which will refer her to a faith-based rehabilitation program—or go to the police station for processing. Previously, police would book the prostitutes, lock them up, send them to a court hearing, where they would be released—and the cycle would begin again. “Now I believe with the people we have in place, they’re treated with respect and dignity,” said Agron. “Restoring them is a better option.”

Follow the 2014 Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition.

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