Moving toward a ‘culture of peace,’ one child at a time

Interfaith camps offer fun, peacemaking for Jerusalem, U.S. youth

[Episcopal News Service] Climbing Stone Mountain in the Georgia humidity and triple-digit heat was one of the hardest things 11-year-old Miller had ever done — but he managed just fine, with a little help from his newfound friends.

There were nearly two dozen of them, in fact; 11- to 13-year-old Muslims, Jews and Christians, from Jerusalem and the United States, who learned about each other’s faith traditions and lives during a recent two-week Kids4Peace summer camp experience in Atlanta.

“I really thought a lot about peace in the world, and about violence,” after scaling the rocky summit, added Miller, who resides in Powder Springs, Georgia. “Because when we were on top of Stone Mountain, looking out into the world, everything was okay. Nothing was wrong.”

Which was partly why Kids4Peace was founded in 2002 through the efforts of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and collaborative U.S. partners, according to the Rev. Josh Thomas, executive director of Kids4Peace USA, during a July 17 telephone interview.

About 450 kids have participated in the program in the nine years since the first session, at Camp Allen in the Diocese of Texas. This year, the agency organized summer peace camps for a total of 48 Jerusalem youth. Groups of 12 Jerusalem youth — four each Muslim, Christian and Jewish — are sent to a campsite, either in Atlanta, North Carolina, Boston or Vermont.

While in the United States, the 12 visitors, whose last names are withheld to protect their safety, enjoy camp activities and educational experiences with equal numbers of their American counterparts. This year, 150 Jerusalem youth applied for the 48 spaces, Thomas said.

There is also a continuation program offered for 13- to 14-year-olds after the initial camp experience, which includes educational activities, dialogue and community service to help nurture a culture of peace, Thomas added.

New this year is a leadership camp, held in Brattleboro, Vermont, about 150 miles south of Burlington, to teach additional peacemaking skills to 14 to 16 year olds who’ve been through the initial camp experience, he said. Eleven youth, including eight from Jerusalem, are participating in the camp, which officially got underway July 18.

Sasha, 15, a Palestinian Christian, said she hoped the leadership program would equip her “to go back home with a lot of knowledge. I hope I can get many points of view, not only my point of view. I don’t want to listen to the same point of view as mine. And I want to have fun.”

Despite loving her initial camp experience, she found returning home changed things. “I really like the Jewish kids, but when I went back home, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to be close to them,” she said.

“In the camp we all feel equal because we’re in America and there’s no checkpoints … (but) I have a lot of friends who live behind the checkpoints and the walls, and I can’t see them. It’s been two years and I haven’t seen my best friend in Ramallah.”

Hassan, 16, is Muslim and lives in a predominantly Jewish area of Jerusalem. He hopes “that each one of us can go back home with a new experience and new knowledge and be confident in himself and be able to change the area where he lives. That if he doesn’t like it, he’ll have the courage to go and try to change it.”

Peace, for him, would be “for everybody to walk in the streets wherever they want without any limits, without being controlled or stopped or looked at in a bad way or cursed at. That’s what I think peace would be like.”

The program is hoping to expand U.S. campsite sponsors next year, Thomas said. It costs about $65,000 to host a camp, most of which is spent on airfare.

“This is a grassroots organization that relies on the kids and families as the source of this movement,” Thomas said in a telephone interview from Vermont. “We’re trying to think of it less as a program and more as a movement towards lasting peace in the Holy Land and beyond.”

In Atlanta near the end of her two-week camp, Noa, a 12-year-old Jewish girl from Jerusalem, said July 15 that the experience had taught her a great deal about herself, as well as others.

“I learned about other religions, very interesting things, but most of the things that I learned were about myself, that I can spend two weeks without my parents,” she said. “And I learned that Arab kids are not bad people. Jewish kids are not bad people, and we lose a friend if we think they are bad.”

Fares, 11, a Christian from Jerusalem said “making peace is important, because without peace it’s only violence and it’s like hate for everybody. My hope is that all the world can live in peace … and that I can be a leader in Kids4Peace.”

And for Miller, 11, of Powder Springs, who got involved with Kids4Peace “because it’s not every day you can meet kids from Jerusalem,” there were lots of surprises.

Among them, “they’re a lot like us. They wear the same clothes. They have MP3 players, computers, X-boxes. This has been a cool experience.”

The Rev. Wendy Porter Cade, co-director of Kids4Peace Atlanta, said the camp has worked because “middle-schoolers are magic, authentic … they absorb everything, miss nothing, hate phonies, crave harmony. Just as soon as they kick a hole in the wall or break down in a fit of tears, they will be leading a game of four square or holding a friend’s hand or spontaneously helping clean the kitchen.”

Cade, in her first year as director of the Atlanta program, has been involved in various with Kids4Peace since 2008. The programs works because it invokes “a blessed formula — interfaith kids from the Middle East who have no business being friends, plus American kids who don’t know anything outside of themselves, plus adults who believe that peace is possible, plus the crazy dream that religion can be the thing that unites us and not divide us … it’s working,” she said in an e-mail to ENS.

Noting that one of the many camp outings included a visit to the King Center for Social Change, she added: “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of the blessed community is really happening. It’s not as easy as black and white. It’s not overnight. It’s a movement. It’s rippling through the lives of 12-year-olds from Atlanta to Boston to Vermont to Jerusalem.”

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.