The tragedy of returning to where I grew up

Try as I might, I can't get the mass shooting on Fathers' Day in Southwest Philadelphia's West African community out of my mind.

The party at Finnegan Playground, 68th and Grovers Ave., was to celebrate recent graduates of area high schools.  One man was killed and five injured, including four teens.  A week earlier, another man had been fatally shot a block away on row-house-lined Dorel St.

I think of those victims and want to cry.

You see, I grew up on 65th St. in that Southwest Philly neighborhood, a three-block walk from Finnegan Playground.  My younger brother and I spent countless hours playing baseball and touch football at Finnegan.  We had friends on Dorel St.  An girlfriend at the time lived at 69th and Dicks Ave.  My father worked at the sprawling General Electric Switchgear facility at 70th and Elmwood Ave.  Heavy industries like GE, Westinghouse, and Baldwin Locomotive were backbones of the local economy.

Violent crime was unheard of.  Often, we forgot to lock our doors at night.

Many families were first- or second-generation Irish and Italian Catholic.  My family's parish, St. Barnabas, was a block from our house.

I hadn't revisited the neighborhood in decades.  An invitation to a St. Barnabas parish reunion a half-dozen years ago prompted my return.

Arriving on a crisp January Sunday, the neighborhood was simultaneously the same yet different.  The sensation was one of passing through a once bustling town that had seen better days: quiet streets with little traffic, few pedestrians, abandoned cars, vacant storefronts, once lovingly cared for homes abandoned or in disrepair.

A cyclone fence surrounded the St. Barnabas compound of church, elementary school, nuns' convent, and priests' rectory.  Doors to parish buildings were locked.

St. Barnabas was no longer the St. Barnabas of my youth. Like the neighborhood, it was the same yet different.

Since 2013, the church has been conducted, not by archdiocesan priests, but by priests of the Neocatechumenal Way ("The Way"), an evangelical mission initiative.  The school, no longer staffed by Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters ( IHMs), is now part of the Independence Mission School system, which under an agreement with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia operates more than a dozen former parish schools in mostly inner-city Philadelphia.  Most of the students are non-Catholic.

While the Mass evoked memories of Sunday Masses long ago, it was the students who hosted the school's open house after Mass who made a lasting impression.

I wasn't aware until then that all students were all minorities, most if not all black.  They were neatly dressed, polite, well spoken, and eager to answer a visitor's questions.  In a word, delightful.

When asked about their lilting patois, I learned that they were emigrants from West African countries like the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Mali, the same countries as the victims of the Father's Day shooting.

I was equally impressed by their parents, especially the financial sacrifices these blue-collar, working-class newcomers to America willingly make to ensure that their children receive a good education in a safe environment.

Then there is the pressure the children themselves suffer at the hands of peers who mock their dedication, hard work, and willingness to play by the rules.

A conversation during lunch with a lifelong parishioner brought me current.  He explained that today's Southwest Philly is no longer the homogeneous community of years past.  Today, it is three distinct communities: West African; a diverse, blue-collar, law-abiding community of whites and minorities; and a tiny criminal class that, not giving a damn about anyone but themselves, despoil the entire neighborhood.

I shook my head then.  And now, every time I think about those kids from half a dozen years ago and the victims of the Fathers' Day shooting, I want to cry.