by Augustinian Volunteer Travis Vermulm
Some part of me expected Philadelphia to come into view from the train window like the fin of a great whale, a mild reflection followed by a grand break in the horizon. I often build up my creative expectations as such, but the reality is sometimes more rewarding.
I saw the city for the first time in several bursts played out over the entire month of September (and even some of August). The first view I received of the city was that of the tourist’s eye, this was a place to visit. I stepped out of 30th street station, very weary from a two-day train ride out of Memphis, and I caught my first view of the skyline.
I’d seen New York before and enjoyed the views of the skyscrapers, but my first impression of Philadelphia was even more stunning. The statue of William Penn atop City Hall is something to behold; he stands amongst such modern developments, cane in hand daring the onslaught of the future to take away his history.
I was impressed and certainly ready to explore. The first weeks of orientation into the Augustinian Volunteers program were filled with much of this newness. I met new people, visited new places, ate new food, I even saw myself in a new light. This experience was the beginning of my first real step out of the undergraduate life and I was ready to see what it brought.
The second impression I had of the city of Philadelphia was as a place to study. When I started work at A.D.R.O.P. I was immediately spending my days in the rich history of South Philadelphia, not to mention living in Old City. Everywhere I turn there is a business that has been open since the early to mid-1900s. The churches, state buildings, schools, and offices, all demand to be studied and the information revealed is incredibly rewarding.
The Shrine of St. Rita stood out in my first experiences. The prayer candles surrounding the kneeling figure of this holy woman, the persistent widow, give the lower level a dim yet ever present light. The signs asking for silence outside of the lower shrine seemed unnecessary to me. Who could walk into this glorious artistic and holy presence and still have words within them?
There is much I anticipate learning from the history of Philadelphia and all its neighborhoods, but my third impression of the city has stirred the most excitement within my being. I recently experienced Philadelphia as a place where someone can truly live.
It might sound a little silly to say that it took almost a month for me to realize a place could be lived in, when thousands of people live here, but perspective is a very tricky word at times. Working at A.D.R.O.P. has reminded me the difference between living somewhere and merely visiting.
I drew comparisons of this experience from my home state of Montana. I live around 40 miles from Glacier National Park, which is a very popular travel destination for people all around the United States and even other countries. The landscape is beautiful, and I was lucky to have the park so close, but often I did not see the same side of the park that all the visitors saw. I saw the good along with the bad, the poverty of the reservation towns only blocks away from the rich resort streets reserved for celebrities.
I used to think this was cynical or even negative, but really it is just a different perspective. When one is in the shoes of the tourist, there is no immediate feeling to reach out and build upon the structures already in place. The tourist can view everything through a lens and that is their goal. I first arrived here as a tourist, hoping to see the history and places of visitation. I am hoping now to develop the view of the resident. Just like any other home there are issues, but the residents and community members are called to not ignore such issues, but to help those who need help. I know working at A.D.R.O.P. will show me where I can serve, and hopefully, in doing so, I will be welcomed as a member of this community.
Several moments stick in my mind that have helped me start to feel at peace in this new place, as I write this however, I cannot stop myself from fixating on one.
At St. Anthony of Padua’s kindergarten class, I wandered around desks finding where I was needed by the children. One boy raised his hand and summoned me over with a call of “Mr. Travis!”
When I came to his desk, I learned he was missing several colors from his collection of crayons. He had broken the others and wanted to know if there were extras. The teacher addressed me saying, “Yeah we will have extras for him, his sister did the same thing when I had her.”
Here, just like home, families are known, communities are close, and needs are met.