Community in Camden Q&A: Finding purpose, growing opportunity

By Lauren Jefferson | May 30th, 2019

AFTER GRADUATING IN 2007, Timothy and Cheryl Heatwole Shenk moved to Camden, New Jersey, to be part of an intentional Christian community, which includes 12 adults and five children living in four houses and “supporting each other in discipleship, life and work.”

They and their three children, Lydia, 9, Matteo, 7, and Vivia, 4, live in a rowhouse. Across the street are Sacred Heart Catholic Church and Sacred Heart School, where Timothy teaches K-8 physical and health education and Cheryl is lead teacher at the Montessori preschool she helped found.

The family’s lifestyle choices are deeply considered. They “live lightly,” minimizing their use of the car; line-drying washed clothing; gardening for themselves and others; and contributing to educational programming at the nearby Center for Environmental Transformation. Timothy’s growing repertoire of magic tricks, the family’s culinary gifts, and their shelter rescue dog Kelbi, who requires daily walks, are all means to cultivating and enjoying friendships with their neighbors.


The intentional community here in Camden started in 2003 and EMU students connected with it first in 2004. In 2005, we led a spring break Y-trip to Camden (the first one from EMU went the year before), in part because Cheryl was interested in environmental justice and that was something the community was addressing through an urban gardening project. After returning from our Middle East cross-cultural in 2006, we spent most of the summer there and Cheryl completed her environmental science practicum. In many ways, being in Camden, just five hours from EMU, was a more challenging cross-cultural adjustment than being in the Palestinian and Jewish contexts in the Middle East.

Our senior year we led another Y-trip. Though we had planned to work internationally after graduation with VMM or MCC, the community asked us to consider moving to Camden, and by the end of the week, we felt like Camden is where God could use us to learn, grow, and serve. We graduated from EMU in April 2007, got married in May, and moved to Camden in August.


In and out of the school and through our own children, we spend time interacting with kids in the neighborhood, helping connect them to and interact with the natural world. For example, we made a nature trail in the neighborhood park and use the outdoors in our teaching and learning experiences.

Cross-cultural relating and learning has always been an important part of both of our family cultures, with parents and grandparents who served with VMM and MCC in Jamaica, Bolivia and Puerto Rico.

This was supported also by our EMU experiences: we both went on our cross-cultural in the Middle East, participated on Y-Serve trips, got to know international students, and took courses. In recent years, we’ve had a growing awareness of the need and opportunity for us to actively work against racism hidden in our perceptions, institutions and culture. We’re both learning to read Scripture from the vantage point of living in an impoverished community of color.


We have had many small but significant affirmations.

Timothy: When our neighbor says, “You’re like family to me. You’re like my second family.” When another neighbor needs emergency child care and drops their children off at our house. When we use our skills and education to win a $20,000 Grand Prize grant to benefit children in our neighborhood. When we take children on the small nature trail we made in the neighborhood park, and later a child sees a picture from a beautiful forest and says, “Ms. Cheryl, that’s the place you take us!”

One time a neighbor needed to go in an ambulance but she didn’t know what to do with her baby. Cheryl had gone to see what was happening. Someone said, “Give the baby to her, she’s Mr. Tim’s wife.” So Cheryl took care of the baby for a few hours and started a relationship with that family that continued for years. The fact that we are often the only white people in a space – we’re working toward integration and bringing the diversity and fighting against the forces of segregation and discrimination.

Cheryl: Some of our most significant life decisions have happened quite quickly. Both our decision to move to Camden, and four years later, my decision to start pursuing Montessori training were both complete turn-abouts in our thinking over the span of a week. But in both cases, we can see in retrospect the way our life experiences had prepared us to take these unexpected new trajectories. We do feel as if we are contributing to the greater good, bringing the good news of God’s vision of justice.