Two People, One God and Hope for a Lost City

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CAMDEN, N.J. -- Chicago may be the deadliest city in America, but crime statistics show the most violent city (per capita) is Camden, N.J. It's also the poorest. Still, some longtime residents say their struggling city holds wealth beyond measure.

"I've never found Camden to be a bad place," resident Tina Scott told CBN News.

Scott owns "Bride of Christ Robes," a successful downtown Camden shop that designs and sells custom robes for women in ministry. Scott's garments now ship to Germany, Japan, the Caribbean and across the United States.

"Mind you, I flunked sewing in school," Scott said.  "I had to make a purple, pleated skirt. I couldn't do it and I got a failing grade for sewing."

The seamstress and single mom has spent her life beating the odds. A perfect example of that is the neighborhood she chose to start her business. Her old pictures look like they came from a war zone. Her shop was a mere shell of a building, with no roof and no other businesses nearby.

Scott recalled seeing the crumbling building for the first time. 

"It was just looking through the eyes of faith. It felt like this is where God was leading me to," she told CBN News.

A City Visionary

Scott is a city visionary. In the 1980s, she served on Camden's Commission for Public Housing and its Redevelopment Authority. She went on to serve on the board of the public library.
 
Today, Camden's revitalized historic district captures even more than Scott's vision for her clothing business. But it is still a work in progress that doesn't stretch far enough.

"Once you leave this area, which is a lot of new buildings and a lot of new construction, and go two or three streets over, it looks like you are in a totally different place," Scott said.

CBN News visited those troubled places with Michael DeLeon. The New Jersey filmmaker spent three years shooting a documentary about the city of Camden.

On the drive around the city, Camden said, "There are 70,000 people they say in Camden. It's just so small, but no matter where you drive around in the city, it's just such devastation and poverty and crime and drugs."

Camden sits in the shadow of historic Philadelphia, a thriving city, just across the Delaware River. But Camden's reality is not nearly as bright. More than 42 percent of its population lives below the poverty level, and less than 50 percent of its students finish high school.

Camden was once a thriving factory town, home to Campbell's Soup and RCA.  But the riots of 1969 and 1971 left the city in ruins, and those who could afford to leave the city, did. That trouble was followed by years of political corruption.

"What was troubling me the most about Camden and other urban areas of New Jersey is the amount of kids who were dying due to drug overdoses and violence and gang violence," DeLeon said.

As a former gang member, drug addict and prisoner, DeLeon knows the "street life" well. 

'Steered Straight'

He detailed a short list of his crimes to CBN News.

"I got a member of my family killed, and it didn't stop my drug addiction," he recalled. "It didn't stop my gang involvement and I was present in a room when one of my friends, a gang member, shot and killed my best friend and I went to prison for aggravated manslaughter."

After serving 10 years, DeLeon chose to dedicate his life to help children make better choices with their lives. Thus far, he has spoken to more than a million students through his "Steered Straight" program.

DeLeon believes "there is nothing wrong with this city that can't be fixed by what's right with this city. And this city is filled with people who serve God, who live the life, and they influence people in a positive way, other people."

DeLeon introduced us to one of those people. Tawanda "Wawa" Jones turns a city water tower into a dance hall five days week for the "Camden Sophisticated Sisters" drill team, a dance troop Jones started when she was only 15. She was inspired by her late grandfather who bought the team its first round of uniforms and drums 26 years ago.

"My grandfather sees the great in everyone, in everyone," Jones said. "And what he constantly fed to me was there is not enough people who care and you have to be one of those people."

Tawanda's girls affectionately call her "Ms. Wawa" and they know she cares about them from the moment they meet.

Drill team member Shaniya Birch recalled, "I just met 'Miss Wawa' four months ago and she is like a second mom. She wants so much for me, and I just can't believe how much she wants for me and how much she wants for me to succeed in life. And that surprised me, you know. And I am just so happy. I love her so much. I can't even say it enough."

Dancing the Pain Away

The drill team's rehearsals inside Camden's water tower are electrifying, and there is a waiting list of girls who want to join the team. That need has Jones in an exhaustive search for a bigger space to train.
  
"When they are in that water tower, there whole expression changes," Jones said. "Everything changes. They really leave a lot at the door, and they dance that pain away."

Daisanay Green lost her father when she was only three.

"He was riding down the street and a drunk driver hit him," Green told CBN News. "He was on a motorcycle and he flipped a mile or two, I think, and he broke all of his bones and died."

Daisanay is still a daddy's girl -- and she thought of him when she recently performed on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars." That's the drill team's latest honor. But "Miss Wawa" says the bigger prize is her graduation rate.

Jones happily shared, "We have never had a drop out. We have never had a drop out."

And when asked why, she said, "God, God. I can't possibly take credit for any of this. It's definitely all God."   

"What others see as Camden, I really can't speak for them.  But this is my city and I love it."

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Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

News Anchor & Reporter

Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.