Neighbor Spotlight: Loving Your Block by Picking Up Trash
Loving your neighborhood can feel overwhelming or abstract. “Where do I start?” is a question many people ask when they come to us.
Sometimes, the easiest way to start loving your neighborhood is by looking at what’s right in front of you. It’s beginning to look on your very own block. And sometimes, what you see is trash.
This is what happened to Jeremy Chen, who has been living in Kensington with his wife for 4 years. When the pandemic confined him to his house for much of the time, he began to look more closely at his block. “Being at home so much really shifted my attention to our doorstep,” he recalls. Previously, he had been spending a lot of time in a nearby neighborhood, Hunting Park. During lockdown, he realized he had a lot he wanted to learn about his own neighborhood.
“We knew a bunch of neighbors on our block already, but we wanted to do more,” Jeremy shares. “When the unrest happened in the wake of George Floyd’s death, we saw a huge amount of trash. Roads were blocked off by protestors and law enforcement. The garbage trucks weren’t able to come and pick up garbage since. Waste was overflowing onto the sidewalk. We bought trash grabbers and started picking up garbage. It turned out that it was a good way to talk to people who were hanging out in the parks and on the block,” Jeremy smiles.
After a day of rich conversation and filling trash bags, Jeremy and a few others decided to do it again. The next week, they gathered to pick up trash on Sunday. Soon, others were joining in on the weekly ritual.
“It was actually easier to engage people because we were doing something together,” Jeremy reflects, “and picking up trash is encouraging because you can see the change happening right in front of you. At first, we’d go through 15 feet of sidewalk and get like 50 bags of trash. Those were the corners where dumping was really common.”
As the weekly clean-ups picked up steam, Jeremy connected with other neighbors. Many were passionate about neighborhood beautification and waste collection. A Block Captain named Yari Baez Agosto joined the group. She had been cleaning up her block every day for the past 15 years. A small text chain started for locals interested in the clean-up. A few people even gave donations for supplies like trash cans. Jeremy and others decorated them and installed them nearby.
“What was great is that since we started doing this, other neighbors have been helping to keep it clean. The guys on the corner monitor it to make sure people aren’t dumping,” Jeremy laughs. A few key areas have had far less trash since these neighbors joined the initiative. But Jeremy says as the clean-ups have grown and gotten more visible, so has his understanding of trash collection and its intersection with justice.
“When you start tackling a problem like trash,” he says, “You start to realize that it’s connected with everything else. It’s connected to city politics and government subcontractors, neighborhood politics, health issues in the city — everything. It can end up feeling overwhelming. I think the most important thing to remember is that consistency is what makes a difference. Some days 20 people come to the clean-ups, but sometimes it’s just 3 of us. But because we’ve been consistent, we’ve gotten to build a lot of new and meaningful relationships. I knew we had made it when we were struggling to remove a couch that had been dumped. One neighbor dropped everything to go get us a chainsaw to cut it with. Once we had a chainsaw, another neighbor dropped everything to get us oil for the chainsaw. That’s the community coming together because they feel connected to what you’re doing.”
Jeremy knows that every Sunday is a proclamation of his faith. The clean-ups offer a picture of hope and restoration on the Sabbath. But even though he sees the trash collection as fitting into a higher calling, he is careful not to romanticize the work.
“It’s easy to think that Kingdom work is glamorous,” he says. “For things to really be meaningful, they need legs, sustainability, and trust that’s built over a long period of time. We need to be connected with people in a neighborhood and understand their perspectives. Cleaning up trash isn’t pretty sometimes. If we are only looking for it to be a romantic or fulfilling experience, we’re going to burn out or miss the nuance of what’s actually going on.”
What practical, unglamorous ways are you loving your neighbors and your neighborhood nowadays? We would love to hear from you.
Black Lives Matter & Proximity in Protests
All is not well in Philadelphia right now. Our neighborhood has been facing huge challenges in the throes of COVID-19. The recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (among many others), have caused outrage and indignation to boil over.
We are witnessing a lot of anger and violence in our neighborhood. The police are here, and yes, we’ve seen local property destroyed. Pray for the peace of Kensington – the peace that springs from true equity and justice. Black lives matter, and we know that they have not mattered in our country for far too long.
At The Simple Way, we are working to wage peace and solidarity. We have participated in peaceful demonstrations to call attention to the racial injustice plaguing communities like ours. Especially since local stores have been damaged, we are working overtime to keep our food distribution going consistently.
More than anything, we are all spending a lot of time listening. As a racially diverse staff and neighborhood, we know that the realities of oppression touch us in vastly different ways. These killings and demonstrations are ripping wounds and griefs open for our black brothers and sisters. We want to be with them well.
We invite you to choose one way to act today as a means of loving God and loving your neighbor. Please reach out to us if you need to talk more or have questions. We want to hold space for you in these raw times. And now more than ever, your support and encouragement keeps us going and brings us great joy and hope.
Update on Our Covid-19 Response
Thank you for your wave of generosity towards us! Your prayers, support, and gifts have cheered us in these trying times. As you know, we have been working harder than ever to love Kensington during the pandemic. We are trying to balance the sacrificial love this moment requires with self-care. We know many of you are trying to strike that balance, too.
Strangely, we’re seeing this crisis galvanize the church and create some windows of lasting opportunity. We have seen churches and organizations across the city band together. I participated in one virtual meeting where 15 faith leaders and organizational leaders from Philadelphia met in the late evening together. They were crafting plans to help each other and their communities.
As other agencies in Philadelphia have had to close their doors, we received some extra resources to distribute. We are grateful to have opened our food distribution for a second day – doubling the families we’re able to serve. Our neighbors, teammates, and friends have been working tirelessly to make this possible. Their commitment to their literal and spiritual neighbors inspires me every day.
Through it all, we’re fighting to remain present, consistent, and responsive. In truth, our neighborhood is vulnerable physically and economically. But I feel so hopeful, because in spite of these barriers, Jesus is alive and moving. I see him in our churches, our partners, our team, and our neighbors. I see him in people like you loving us and loving your neighbor.
Thank you for being on this journey with us. Every gift you give is going farther than you can imagine.
Covid-19: We Exist for Times like These
Hello dear friends,
In this unprecedented time, I want to tell you why I feel more resolved and certain than ever. My teammate, Jen Casselberry, said it best the other day.
“As I’ve been worrying about how we’re going to make it, thinking about how we’re going to raise enough funds to keep going, whether it’s even okay to ask people to continue to give to our work in this current pandemic, I kept thinking – this is what we’re here for.
This is why we exist – to find the places where people are suffering, or ignored, or neglected, or alone, or unloved, and love them and receive love from them in a radical way. Especially in moments of risk.
What better opportunity, in the midst of all this chaos, to find ways to love people, to join together as communities, to find people who don’t have a community and invite them into ours?
Even if we have to stay 6 feet away from people, we can still find ways to reach out in love. Especially for the sake of our neighbors who can’t get a break – hospital workers, garbage collectors, and so many of our friends around the block.”
At The Simple Way, we are more committed than ever to banding together with our neighbors to build a community where we all belong and thrive.
You make it possible – everyone has a gift to give and a role to play in times like these. Thank you for being with us.
Open House Takeaways: Dave’s Reflections
On the registration form there was a question – “why do want to take part in the open house”. My answer was “I don’t know, I just feel like I need to.” The truth is I had a lot of questions but my pride and ego told me I knew the answers, they just need to be validated. I was not born to privilege, my father was a world war 2 veteran who was barely literate, only reading at about a 6th grade level. I fought very hard all my life to change my situation and climb the ladder. I did not want my children to face the struggles I did. I guess life would label my journey as successful but I didn’t carry a relationship with God with me. In 2013 God gave me what I believe was 1 last chance. He kicked the chair from under me when I lost that career. I gave my life to Christ in a true transformation. Through grace I have been granted the career of my dreams and work for someone that is a true mentor, friend and great boss. My transformation in Christ though brought a view of the injustice in the world around me that I didn’t have before. Sadly I am very much a willing participant in many cases. I have a yearning to address this in some way. Perhaps that was the draw to the Simple Way and ultimately the open house.
‘Contemplative Spirituality’ – That is my greatest takeaway from the weekend. I cherish the mornings where we sat together and read scriptures, then challenged ourselves to look at them in different ways, through different lenses and recognize how our perspectives are shaped and how they differ from others. I continue to refer to the Welcoming Prayer – I welcome everything that comes to me today because it is for my healing – I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself.
One of the scriptures we studied was “If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere . Listening and learning from Caz was amazing. The very unique perspective on discerning these scriptures is one I hope to take with me and put into everyday practice. I learned that in my desire to play a part in changing the world; in appreciating those who live or look different, I built resentment to those who live and look just like me and in that mindset – myself. The command of “love thy neighbor” needs to start with those to my immediate right & left before it extends beyond to those far from me. I walked away wanting to remove the guilt for who I am and accept my situation for my healing. As the Welcome Prayer states – embrace the moment rather than react to change it . I want to grow to be seen as a loving person by those in my immediate surrounding and by building that coalition maybe the culture can be affected.
I may have walked away with more questions than I came with or at least different questions. I learned a lot and hope these things stay with me. I have changed my approach to meditation with God and the way I pray. I am so grateful to Caz and the team for the willingness to lead and share. I recognize that “love thy neighbor as thyself” starts with loving oneself, then extends to those in your immediate surroundings and then and only then can that fountain spring and be light and salt to the world. I am so glad I attended and hope we stay in touch.
The first time I went in for my cancer treatment, everyone I saw at the clinic was so sad. I couldn’t help myself. I started to crack homeless jokes.
I got a few gasps of surprise; people started asking me how I could be joking and telling homeless jokes in the middle of a cancer treatment center.
“When I was homeless those were the jokes we told,” I said, “they’re the jokes I know. We gotta keep our motivation somehow if we’re so sick.”
That’s my philosophy in general: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and we can either give up and die or keep moving forward each day. Every day I see a client, my goal is for them to leave with a little bit of hope and a smile on their face.
I stumbled upon The Simple Way as a client myself. After living in Philly for various years and moving around year to year, I moved onto Potter St. One day I was in need of food and I called “The Hunger Hotline.” I was surprised to find that the address I got was on the same block I’d moved into. I stayed on the food line for several weeks before volunteering to help. Quickly, I learned just how much work goes behind the scenes in making it work. The food doesn’t just jump in the bag!
In 2011, after several months of volunteer work, I was offered a position at The Simple Way. It was a blessing. I felt I had arrived home and that I was being given the chance to do what I loved-help those in need!
That chance is what kept me going throughout my treatment. As soon as the doctor gave me the diagnosis, I told him I had to get over it quick, because my clients needed me. I’m pretty sure later the doctor said to the nurses later, “well, this one’s a nutjob!”
Maybe that’s right. Sometimes I think I have a compulsive disorder. I feel good when I get to make other people in my community feel good. All I thought about while I was sick was getting back to help my clients; that was what kept me motivated.
In March 2015, I was declared cancer-free, and I informed my clients about my health issues. They asked me “why you didn’t say anything to us so we could be there for you?”
I just replied that they are the ones in need, not me. Ensuring that they are okay is what makes me feel proud of the work I do. I get the opportunity to engage with my clients, get to hear their stories and be able to provide them with resources where they will be able to get assistance for their issues. It was what kept me going through my treatment.
At times all people want is a listening ear. We give people the chance to connect with each other in everything we do. When you have people outside your family who care about you, it gives you a different kind of motivation than when you have just your family.
I always want my neighbors to know, it doesn’t matter what you’re going through, hold your head up high. If you need food, it doesn’t make you less. If you need housing, it doesn’t make you less. I am grateful for the chance to make a difference in someone’s life and allowing me to bring a smile and a little bit of hope to my community.
Today We Remember
Ten years ago on June 20, 2007, a seven-alarm fire broke out on the 3200 block of H Street. Its source was one of Philadelphia’s 700 abandoned factories.
A hundred families were affected. Dozens of homes were evacuated, and many houses burned to the ground, including the community center here at The Simple Way. Cars exploded before people could move them. But no one was hurt.
The neighborhood pulled together. Volunteers in the emergency response shelter came by to share how beautiful it was to see our neighborhood take care of each other, not a single person ended up staying in the shelter. Our neighbors opened their homes up to each other.
We are proud to call Kensington home. In the decade since the fire, we have resurrected the entire block that burned down. We were able to stabilize families, build our greenhouse and aquaponics system, and plant fruit trees that are in full bloom right now.
Now we call the block Phoenix Park because it rose from the ashes.
Just as we raised thousands of dollars to rebuild our neighborhood after the fire, we want to invite you to be a part of the next 10 years of the ongoing redemption story here at The Simple Way. We need your support — not just in the times of crisis, but in the everyday moments of doing small things with great love.
We are so excited about what the future holds. This year we will be collaborating with another organization to start to build a community health center on the exact location where the factory burned down 10 years ago. It will be the next chapter of Phoenix Park.
We will continue in the defiant hope of Christ and his empty tomb we will love people back to life, and make ugly things beautiful. We invite you today and everyday to join us in rising from the ashes.
Anniversary: Miracle on Potter Street
They all heard the thud. Moans followed. Chrissy Kind, a long-time supporter of The Simple Way, had gone upstairs after “the worst headache of her life” struck.
The plaintive sound was unusual; Chrissy was known as an energetic pillar of The Simple Way’s support team. “It’s a very special place for me,” she says, “It just embodies what the gospel should be. It’s so clear who Jesus cares about, and we need to stand up and make space for people whose voices are ignored. The Simple Way is a story of beauty out of ashes. It’s the gospel. God takes a little bit of what we have to offer and returns it a hundredfold.” She says earnestly, “We all give our little bit, and God returns it sevenfold.”
In the midst of the moaning, Caz, Mike Diaz, Chrissy’s sister, Valerie, and brother-in-law Andy looked at each other awkwardly, uncertain of what to do. Valerie, Andy, and Chrissy had gathered at The Simple Way to do a site visit on behalf of the Patricia Kind Family Foundation. Chrissy’s mother, Patricia Kind, had always encouraged her children to visit and emotionally support the organizations they gave to financially. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Chrissy had come to hear from The Simple Way staff. Unbeknownst to them, though, she was lying on the bathroom floor, a burst brain aneurysm pushing her out of consciousness.
Chrissy has few recollections of the event. “I remember sitting down, and that’s pretty much it. But God had His hand on me, and He had it happen at a time when all the people I knew and loved were close by and praying.”
Eventually, Valerie went to look for her sister. Although the door was locked, Chrissy somehow managed to open it. Valerie looked into the bathroom and saw her sister passed out on the floor. Immediately, she sprang into action and called for help. Within minutes, an ambulance and Chrissy’s other sister, Laura, a nurse practitioner who “just happened” to be working around the corner in Kensington at the Catholic Worker Free Health Clinic, arrived on the scene. The medics quickly intubated Chrissy, ensuring that her brain never lost oxygen.
As she left, the stunned staff team immediately started praying for protection, healing, and life as they awaited updates. Their prayers commingled with those of Chrissy’s church, Epiphany Fellowship Philadelphia, which was holding a prayer meeting that night. The leader of the prayer meeting knew Chrissy; she had taken care of his kids before, they had been on retreats together. He started weeping as he led the meeting, and the church poured out supplication for Chrissy.
It’s been exactly one year since that whirlwind event. Miraculously, Chrissy shows no lasting physical effects from the aneurysm, apart from difficulty remembering names and details. “That could just be because I’m sixty-two years old and kinda spacey to begin with,” Chrissy suggests.
She chalks up the extraordinary healing to the prayers of so many people and to God’s mercy. “I got out of rehab really quickly and had a few follow-up appointments. The doctors wanted to bottle whatever it was that had healed me; but it was really just Jesus.” She continues soberly, “God decided that he wasn’t taking me home yet. At the same time, I know others younger than me who have died. In God’s mercy and wisdom He makes these decisions. It made me think that God must still have something for me.”
Chrissy believes that a big part of that “something” means sharing with people experiencing material poverty. “I grew up with educated parents, wealth, white privilege. It’s nothing I earned or merited. My dad always said that we had to do what we could to help others.” She chuckled and shared one of her favorite quotes. “He always used to say ‘don’t take credit for a home run when you were born on third base.’”
At The Simple Way, we get to see home runs, miracles, and sevenfold return in Kensington. While not every day features a miracle like the one we got to experience with Chrissy, each one does feature the miracle to which Chrissy alludes: God’s ability to weave Shalom out of the gifts that diverse people bring. We’re so thankful that God returned Chrissy to us, and are thrilled to celebrate God’s faithfulness one year after it occured. Indeed, God still has something for us to do, and we are honored to faithfully follow.
Laying the Foundation
Pictured above: An excavator lies still at the site of Esperanza Health Center’s forthcoming parking structure.
Work is well underway at the bank building nearby, the building that Esperanza Health Center will move into in the spring. They’ve now turned to digging huge holes in the ground and preparing to lay the foundations for what will be a parking structure.
I’ve stood watching diggers dig, move dirt, rubble and all sorts of debris from the remains of the buildings that once stood in the same spot over ten years ago. It’s strange to survey this liminal space, remembering what was and imagining what will be, even though the space currently houses nothing but machinery and holes.
As I’ve watched, I’ve thought about how the process reveals some of the hidden realities of life. First, there’s always more under the surface than you think. Second, it seems true that the weakness or strength of any structure hinges on its foundation. The foundation supports the load of the entire building, keeps it standing when forces of nature come to wreak havoc, and it keeps ground moisture at bay to protect the structure’s integrity. If the foundation fails in any of these areas, the building will sag, putting anyone inside, and structures around it, in danger.
The Simple Way has met a lot of immediate needs for folks over the years, but the longer we’ve been here, the more we’ve looked for ways to support neighbors in finding greater stability. This stability comes through access. Access to food, healthcare, safe and affordable housing, and places of belonging. Each of these represents a crucial elements of stability, a foundation upon which neighbors can build a full life. As part of our communal life here in Kensington, we seek to find sustainable ways for neighbors to meet those needs with dignity, a way for them to lay a firm foundation in their lives.
Sometimes The Simple Way feels like a construction zone, too. But as I stand here, holding memories of what has been and hopes of what will be, I smile at the small ways we are contributing to the long-term strengthening of our neighborhood.
Balancing Work and Ministry
Mother Teresa once encouraged us that God does not call us to be successful, but to be faithful. As a CORE Member of The Simple Way, neighboring is very important to me. But most of the time I feel like I’m failing, priorities falling through the cracks between my finite fingers as if I were desperately trying to hold onto sand. Sometimes I’d rather forget it all and Netflix myself into oblivion. Can you relate?
In my situation, I work full-time at a nearby Christian health center. The work has been deeply meaningful, and also challenging. As a Behavioral Health Consultant, I’ve been able to learn conversational Spanish, accompany patients through life’s difficulties, and pray with others.
At the same time, the job is very emotionally draining and takes up so much of my days. I’m not able to spend as much time with neighbors and friends anymore. It’s like logistical Tetris trying to also fit in spiritual practices, self-care, and prophetic activities to resist systemic sin and injustice.
Whether you’re trying to manage full-time work, parenting, care-taking, chronic illness, a disability, or any other life situation that makes you feel limited, it can seem like you’re never doing enough. Meanwhile, other people appear to have it all together, maintaining a full life while looking flawless doing it, curated by social media.
There’s probably resources you can find that teaches strategies for time management, organization, and other life skills that I haven;t figured out yet. But I sense God beckoning me to turn away from the individualistic, performance-oriented mentality prevalent in our culture so that I can focus on God’s loving presence in my day to day, whether I’m at the clinic or on my block.
By being fully present in the moment, attuned to God’s voice and movements, I can gain clarity on how God is inviting me to join in.
We are not our own, but part of the Body of Christ. In The Message, Romans reads, “Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. Let’s be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”
By being true to our limited, finite selves, we remember that our significance does not come from our individual achievements, but from being lovingly woven into the larger story of God’s redeeming work in this world.
Maybe someday my Google calendar will be perfectly cataloged with color-coordinated blocks of intention. But for now, I’ll be content in remaining open to the invitations that lie in every greeting from a neighbor, each tear shed by a patient at work, and every interaction God meets me with daily.
– Sueihn Lee, CORE Member of The Simple Way