Andrew Staiti

is a Franciscan volunteer minister from Boston

Camden. For years, number one on America's most dangerous cities list. My home for the last 10 months as a Franciscan volunteer minister, serving the parish of St. Anthony of Padua.

This is the one place my mother did not want me to be placed in my volunteer program. "Anywhere but Camden," she said. And yet, 10 months later, I couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

Most people know - or have at least heard of - all that's bad about Camden. For almost a year, I have been truly blessed to see the side most people don't know.

Part of that side is Vincent St. John, a jack-of-all-trades who has had nearly every blue-collar job you can think of, from mechanic to tow-truck driver to security guard. Vinny, as I refer to him, had a stroke several years ago, which rendered the left side of his body immobile. Despite that, and adjusting to a vastly different (and significantly more impoverished) way of life than before his stroke, Vinny still finds time to help with church cleanup days and teach CCD on Sunday mornings.

Camden is driving down River Road after Mass on Sunday, stopping at Café Tinto, a Colombian bakery, and ordering as much food as you can afford, which undoubtedly includes empanadas, pastries, and papas rellenas (fried, meat-filled potato balls). Or, equally as good, going across the street to Nery's and getting anything from a pizza-hoagie to homemade empanadas, or arroz con gandules (rice and beans in a Dominican fashion).

Camden is getting your hair cut by Rafa Corte - owner of 809 Barber Shop - and, though his English is limited and your Spanish is limited, still communicating the right trim you want. And without fail, every time, he gives you the best haircut you've ever had. "Cuidado para la muchachas!" (Dangerous for the girls!), he might say as he finishes cleaning you up, and takes the bib off you the way a waiter does a tablecloth.

It's Von Nieda Park in Cramer Hill, once known as "the nation's most depressing park," that, over the last three years, has been transformed into one of the city's cleanest and safest. The overhaul is due in large part to a group of dedicated middle-school students of St. Anthony of Padua parish school. These student leaders are taught - and able - to practice the basics of community organizing and given ways they can use their collective voices and power to change negativity all around them.

It is also St. Anthony of Padua parish in Cramer Hill, for years a port in the storm for the predominantly Hispanic population of Camden. They were seeking a church fitting their devoted and righteous Catholic way of life. The work of the friars, and places that they tend to, including the Francis House and parish school, is simply too much to capture on paper. It is life-changing and the ultimate testament to living a life dedicated to serving others, especially those who need the most help.

Camden is love. If there is one thing I have learned in my time here, it is that I love this city. It doesn't matter to me how many abandoned rowhouses I drive by, or vacant lots I pass through. It doesn't matter how many wailing sirens or barking dogs I hear in the middle of the night. It doesn't matter that the majority of the population here speaks a language not my own, or what the newspapers say about it. I love this place. It has been an honor - truly an honor - to live and minister here.