Twenty-three years ago, Cornelius walked through the doors of Covenant House New Jersey (CHNJ), a lost 16-year-old with no clear plan for the future. Family turmoil had led to years of moving from place to place, ultimately living in a group home for kids under the age of 18. Cornelius first came to our Atlantic City Crisis Center for meals and to connect with staff. Aging out at 18 and arriving at Covenant House the same day was a chance for a fresh start. The CHNJ team got Cornelius a cake to celebrate. A fond memory Cornelius recalls.
“I remembered the staff sang happy birthday to me. It was like they were saying, ‘We are happy you are here.’ At that moment, I felt the love and acceptance and hope that all these people had for me, and I wanted to have that for myself.”
A picture Cornelius painted back in 1998 still hangs in the lobby of one of the residential floors. “I was queer, light-skinned, and first-generation American. I felt very different from my family. I felt very different from most people.”
Covenant House was the first place I was able to take a breath, to stop and hear myself think, and to begin to hope. It was the first piece in the new foundation I was laying on to build my life and the place where I was able to begin to create a new story for myself and start to dream again.” Those dreams were brought to fruition when a new job brought the opportunity to work with homeless and at-risk youth, a capacity Cornelius has served in for the last 13 years.
“I think I was fitted for this work. I know the fear and anger and bitterness and sadness being homeless and young can bring you. I know the heaviness of not knowing what’s going to happen next. But I also know that there is hope. That, with the right support, there is always hope.”
Cornelius, who identifies as either Black or Liberian American, says that the current social injustice movements across the country “feel different” than previous marches and protests. Citing the demonstrations following the death of New York City resident Eric Gardner in 2014, Cornelius observes that people were occupied with life, working, and going about their business. Hence, it was harder to stay engaged in the outrage.
“The current movement has been the result of a perfect storm. You have the virus and unemployment keeping people home and out of work. They are seeing more and more images of terrible things and can play the whole tape. (Many people) have nothing to do but take to the streets and be angry out loud”. Having been a victim of police brutality and racial profiling, Cornelius hopes for a world where beloved nieces and nephews don’t have to be afraid to walk down the street or participate in a peaceful protest.
“I am very outspoken about things that are wrong. This movement is a young movement. The organizers I know are 18 and 19 years old. I’m so proud to get to witness these protests that are creating a story”.
It is a story that is written day after day as this movement of outcry against social injustice continues.
Why This, Why Now?
This reflection is part of a series intended to focus on voices of color from within our Covenant House New Jersey community. The recent troubles in our nation have prompted CHNJ to consider, “What is the loving thing to do?’ as we know that racial discrimination is a prevalent part of many stories within our houses. We cannot stand by and allow that to continue if it is within our power to effect change. And we believe it is. It is our hope that by sharing the voices and stories of both staff and youth across New Jersey, healing among our own Covenant community can take place and systemic change beyond our doors can continue forward.We invite you to pause and listen to the courageous voices featured in these ongoing reflections, to stand united with us, and to support our mission to make the world a more equal place for all.