The Ray of Hope Project

Commentary - Sunday Rock Climber Ascends to a Higher Calling in N. Phila.

He found religion, sort of, in helping make poor people's homes more livable.

From The Philadelphia Inquirer - December 5, 2003
By Tom Krattenmaker

My friend Willard Bostock used to devote his Sundays to high-adventure sports -- kayaking, snowboarding, ice and rock climbing. When he wasn't using the time in pursuit of action, Sunday was his chance to work on home improvement projects at his house along the Delaware River in Yardley. From September through January, of course, Sunday was for watching the Eagles.

But nowadays Will is occupied with something else on Sundays. You might be guessing that he found religion and dedicates the seventh day to church. In a sense, you would be right.

Will, along with Raymond Gant of North Philadelphia and a handful of fellow volunteers, spends more than eight hours every Sunday in dilapidated homes in North Philadelphia. You'll find them screwing drywall into walls and ceilings, shoring up caved-in walls and collapsed floors, installing tubs and sinks, and doing whatever else needs to be done to make a poor person's home liable. None receives a cent in return.

Will and Raymond are co-founders of a volunteer organization called Ray of Hope, which has been in operation for about a year. Operating on a shoestring with small donations and a handful of regular volunteers, Ray of Hope is trying to achieve two primary objectives. One is to improve the living conditions of North Philadelphians, many of them single women. The other is to aid the return to the world of men fresh out of prison. Will and Raymond employ the volunteer labor of ex-offenders living in halfway homes, teaching them carpentry skills and providing them with a means of fulfilling their community-service obligation.

Will envisions Ray of Hope as a constructive contagion. He sees ex-prisoners learning carpentry and going on to make their living rehabilitating people's homes, all the while passing on their skills to others and creating momentum for a better community.

I volunteered on a recent Sunday and spent the day with Will. First, we collected discarded kitchen cabinets and a granite countertop from a client of Will's who is upgrading his home in the suburbs. We dropped the goods off at the North Philly home of a young woman whose kitchen had no sink. (She had been getting by with a hose and some large pots to hold water. Will, Raymond and the crew will come back in a week or two to install the cabinets and counter and put in a sink. Then we joined the rest of the group -- Arthur, Raymond, Raymond's brother Wayne, and a retired carpenter known only as Mr. Wilson -- at a house a mile or two to the west, where we fixed a crumbling ceiling for the woman who lives there.

Driving back to Yardley in Will's pickup -- he has traded his Audi convertible for a vehicle better suited to his Sunday commitment -- he reflected on the change that has come over his life since last fall. Ray of Hope is not as much fun as rock-climbing, he admits, but it's a lot more satisfying. He thinks now that his thrill-seeking was just an artificial way to create urgency and meaning in his privileged life.

Will and Raymond started the project after becoming friends at a personal growth workshop in Philadelphia and realizing they both wanted badly to make a contribution to the community. They make for a study in contrast. Will is white, Raymond black. Will grew up in a well-off suburb, Raymond in the inner city. Will owns a hairstyling studio in Huntingdon Valley; Raymond is an equipment operator for a sanitation company. Will is not particularly religious; Raymond is an evangelical Christian who praises the Lord as easily and naturally as breathing.

There are certainly more morals to Raymond's and Will's story than I have figured out. Still, a few leap out at me. Maybe the cultural divides between black and white, inner city and suburbia, religious and secular, are not nearly as wide as many of us tend to think. As someone worried about the wedges religion can drive between people, I am inspired to see two men of such different religious dispositions united in making the world better.

Will's example should give pause to Christians who have convinced themselves that morality is the exclusive realm of believers. And Raymond, a smiling bear of a man who exudes tremendous warmth and kindness, presents a real challenge to seculars who tend to sneer at devoted Christians as sanctimonious hypocrites.

No, Will has not been going to church on Sunday ... Or maybe that just depends on how you define "church."

_________ Tom Krattenmaker lives and writes in Yardley.