Tom grew up in the Triangle Park neighborhood in the Greenville section of in Jersey City. Now in his early 30s, he spent some time in jail and was part of a gang. Tom says being in the gang was more of an inevitability than a choice. If you go outside your apartment to take a walk or have your lunch in the fresh air in the Triangle Park neighborhood the guys who are always standing by the liquor store as if waiting for a bus that will never come start to recognize you as from there and you have to take a side. There’s been a gang war going on around Triangle Park for years and there are few civilian boys over the age of fifteen. Some are initiated when they’re as young as twelve because if caught they won’t receive a severe sentence. Besides, jail is a rite of passage.
Tom’s involvement in the gang ended when he was shot three times one night right across the street from Episcopal Jersey City’s Triangle Park Community Center. He knows who shot him but if he wants to protect himself and his family he also knows better than to say. The owner of a corner store next to where the shooting happened let Tom see the video tape of that night from his security camera. Tom watched it over and over again, replaying the moment that changed everything.
“After that” he says, “I knew I couldn’t live like this anymore.”
Easier said than done.
How you get a job with a criminal history and spotty work experience has been illusive and to steer away from the gangs Tom spends most of his time at home. When he does go out to buy ice cream for his children they’ll ask why he won’t talk to his old friends. When his children ask if he’ll take them to the park he takes them to one in a different neighborhood. They complain piteously because their friends aren’t playing there and as soon as the sun begins its slide behind the apartment buildings he takes them home. Tom doesn’t ever drive the direct route to bring his kids school, avoiding the streets where he might be recognized.
For the last several months Tom has been spending time at the Triangle Park Community Center instead of in his apartment. He helps Monica clean up, pulls together bag lunches for hungry people who show up late and takes in the endless donations that come into our storefront which is no bigger than a reasonably sized living room.
At our regular planning meeting on Wednesday Tom told us that the Center isn’t just a haven for people who need a coat or a bag of groceries or break from the cold. For some, the Triangle Park Community Center is foothold for people scaling the side of a sheer cliff on the way towards a different life. As small as it is, nothing’s more life giving then a foothold when you have nowhere else to get your balance.
Grace Church Van Vorst is a foot hold. Triangle Park Community Center is a foot hold. As a person of faith, you yourself are a foot hold. When Love asks to make a little space in your day don’t be too busy and don’t bother asking why. How Love is at work in your life is a great mystery but meanwhile Tom needs you. Christ needs you. The world needs you.
Your sister in Christ,