By Vicki Garlock
INTERFAITH PEACE CAMPS FOR KIDS
“The camp was a life-changing experience for me. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. It was the most eye-opening experience I’ve ever had. And I made some of the best friends I will ever have.”
– Tamar, American 14-year-old
Some of the most joy-filled interfaith work happens outside the realm of adulthood in the land of painted faces, messy crafts, and outdoor games. It’s the burgeoning world of interfaith peace camps for kids. Held all over the globe, these camps unite the world’s next generation of leaders by encouraging them to do what kids do best – build friendships. Run by mentors from a variety of religious traditions, some camps cater to the tween/teen crowd; others work with kids just learning to read.
Some camps include visits to mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues; others take place in more traditional outdoorsy camp settings. Some are overnight camps; others are day camps. Some focus on conflict-laden populations, like Israelis and Palestinians or Pakistanis and Indians. Others promote peace among American subcultures. In every case, though, the underlying philosophy is that hatred for “the other” dissipates once you’ve heard their stories.
For Real Peace, Begin with Children
The kids’ peace camp movement, already rather extensive, is growing rapidly. In the U.S., you find peace camps in at least 15 states, including Virginia, Washington, Maine, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas. They can also be found in several Canadian provinces, the UK, and Indonesia. Most kids who attend these camps were born long after the seeds of religious discord were planted in their particular communities; but they risk inheriting the ongoing anger and bitterness expressed by their families, their villages, and their governments. Gandhi once said, “If we are to have real peace, we must begin with the children,” and it is the world’s great fortune that so many organizations have taken his words to heart.
Although these peace camps integrate perspectives from various faith traditions, the ongoing strife in the Middle East means that a great deal of emphasis is placed on the Abrahamic religions. One of the largest organizations adopting this approach is Kids4Peace. Founded in 2002, Kids4Peace is credited with bringing together more than 1,000 Israeli, Palestinian, and American youth for dialogue, leadership training, and fun. As you might expect, at least some of the time is spent exploring the religious traditions themselves. Attendees talk about how they pray, the objects used in ceremonies, sacred texts read during services, and rituals that guide their worship. These activities include an entertaining twist as kids create skits to share important features of their religious practices.
Interestingly, important peace-building work also takes place between kids who practice the same religion in different ways – an intrafaith rather than interfaith issue. Israeli kids from the Orthodox Jewish tradition are surprised to hear American kids from the Reform tradition talk about female rabbis. Unitarian Universalist kids struggle to understand the beliefs of their more traditional Christian counterparts. Similarly, Sunni Muslim kids discuss what is halal and what is haram with kids from the Shia tradition, and they don’t always agree.
Despite the attention paid to religious practice, the goal of these peace camps is not to produce religious scholars but to foster connections. A fair bit of time is spent just doing camp things – wading through creeks, climbing rocks, swimming in lakes and pools, and doing art projects. Lauren, a peace camp parent, put it this way, “The camp allows these kids to be children together without any prejudices standing in their way. They see that kids are just kids. They talk about clothing, hairstyles, and school. They don’t have to go through the rigors of peace-making because the peace-making happens on the human level.”
Long-term Effect of Peace Camps on Children
Evidence suggests that the impact from these peace camps is lasting. Researchers from the University of Chicago recently published some interesting findings in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. Their research focused on Israeli and Palestinian teenagers participating in a three-week camp in Maine sponsored by Seeds of Peace. Their survey data produced a number of important findings.
First, attitudes toward the outgroup were significantly more positive after the camp experience than before arriving at camp. Second, campers who became good friends with at least one camper from the outgroup felt more positively about all the campers from the outgroup when compared to those who did not make a good outgroup friend. Third, although positivity ratings did fade during the year between camps, positive feelings toward the outgroup were still higher than their original precamp levels. Taken together, these results suggest that peace camps can produce meaningful changes in attitude, and some of those changes remain even after the kids return home.
Anecdotal evidence supports the research findings. Tamar, who self-identifies as a Reform Jew, stays in touch with her former Kids4Peace roommate, who is a Muslim from Jaffa, Israel. Most of the time they talk about regular teen stuff, but when conflict in the Gaza strip broke out last summer, Tamar immediately contacted her peace pal to make sure everyone was OK. Both Tamar and her mother readily admit that the peace camp was a life-changing experience. Tamar says it is the combination of making great friends and having amazing conversations about religion that keeps the camp experience fresh in her mind. Her mother is convinced that what Tamar has learned will benefit her for a lifetime. As she put it, “My daughter has become a great advocate for peace – not in a theoretical way, but in a real-life, human-experience kind of way.”
Several camps, particularly those centered on the Middle East, offer opportunities for peace-camp kids and their families to stay in touch between camp sessions with Facebook, newsletters, and in-person events. Father Josh Thomas, executive director for Kids4Peace, described a gathering in Jerusalem that happened just a few months ago.
Re-entry for this group of campers had been particularly difficult because of the Israeli-launched military offensive in Gaza last summer. With over 2,000 people dead as a result of the fighting, the feelings of negativity, fear, and division were powerful. Despite the backdrop of hatred, over 250 campers and family members showed up for an evening of crafts, photos, music, food, and fun. They were able to share their excitement about this special community built on friendship, respect, and shared humanity. “The joy on their faces was obvious as they reconnected after their time apart. It resonated in a powerful, deep, and visceral way. When the kind of world I dream of comes into being right before my very eyes, that is joy.”
I think most everyone involved in these peace camps would agree. The work is difficult. It requires courage, dedication, persistence in the face of bureaucracy, and money. But there’s no doubt that the earth is a much more desirable place to live because of them.