Just before the start of Advent, a friend and I drove to Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood that in recent years has become internationally known as a “ground zero” of the U.S. opioid epidemic. In fact, so rampant are open-air drug sales and usage among its narrow streets that a local pastor once called Kensington “the Walmart of heroin.”
My friend and I were headed there to drop off our parish’s annual food collection for St. Francis Inn, an outreach that has served the neighborhood for some four decades, and one whose presence is more needed than ever.
Turning onto Kensington Avenue, we fell silent. Lining both sides of the street were dozens of men and women, huddled beneath the elevated train tracks on storefront steps or sprawled on the sidewalk itself. Some were half standing as they nodded off in the deadly slumber of heroin and fentanyl; others were collapsed in cheap lawn chairs, or curled up in frayed tents. Their faces and clothes were ragged; though still young, many used canes or walkers, their limbs ravaged by drug-related infections, seizures and malnutrition.
As we unloaded our church’s donations, one of the friars at St. Francis Inn estimated that the number of those living on the nearby streets had risen by some 150%. Earlier that week, he had wondered if a nearby park was hosting a festival, since he hadn’t seen so many gathered on its lawns at one time.
Kensington haunted me for weeks afterwards. The five miles between my house and those suffering streets could have been the span of a continent; in a real sense, the contrast was as great as that between the developed and the developing worlds.
Sitting at Mass days later, I could still recall the sidewalk gazes of anguish and apathy, even as the lector proclaimed the words of the prophet Isaiah: “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Is 40:3).
A road for a King through scorched and futile tracts? Dignitaries don’t usually travel through the worst parts of town — or if they do, their security detail ensures that the motorcade passes swiftly, with only a few well-calculated photo ops. The day-to-day actualities of “those” neighborhoods are for a moment swept aside, only to ebb back after the cameras have left.
But Scripture indicates the Lord is interested in much more than a fly-by; instead, he has definite plans for the broken and barren places within and around us: “Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low; the rugged land shall be a plain, the rough country, a broad valley” (Is 40:4).
With both pride and sorrow leveled, “the desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom … with abundant flowers … with joyful song” (Is 35:1-2).
That transformation may seem utterly impossible for our wounded neighborhoods, our fractured relationships, our unfulfilled hearts, our beleaguered faith communities, our scarred earth. And indeed it is, if we look only to human strength to turn sand into soil, and soil into harvest.
Yet Advent calls us to surrender to a power and a beauty that confounds the world: one that manifested itself in a child who came to be crucified and thereby conquer death. In the very deserts from which we flee stands our God, and there shall “the glory of the Lord be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Is 40:5).
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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