Gathering Stories, Poems, Photos, Songs, and Dance
Collaborating to Build Interfaith Bridges
by Vicki Garlock
Не градете толкоз дувари, дето да ви делят, ами повече мостове - да ви събират.”
Don’t build walls between you, that separate you from one another, but build more bridges, they will unite you.
– Kolyu Ficheto (1800-1881), Bulgarian architect, builder, and sculptor
Sometimes, a story is told more easily through art. That’s certainly the case for this Bulgarian-based interfaith and cultural exchange camp – the brainchild of Angelina Vladikova and Svetlana Karadzhova of the Bulgarian NGO and URI (United Religions Initiative) Cooperation Circle named BRIDGES. The camp and the resulting photo exhibit represent an extraordinary partnership between URI-Europe, Arigatou International, KidSpirit, and several municipalities in both Bulgaria and the Netherlands. This article provides the 1,000-word description, but if a picture is worth 1,000 words, you might want to click here and simply bask in their amazing array of photos.
Three years ago, Vladikova and Karadzhova, who had been active members of BRIDGES for years, decided to collaborate on a camp for kids age 12-16. BRIDGES, also known as the Eastern European Forum for Dialogue, is an interfaith organization that promotes respect and mutual understanding among people of different religious traditions in Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. Much of that work involves adults, but Vladikova and Karadzhova recognized the value in starting with kids. As Vladikova put it, “We saw that with adults, it’s more difficult. With children, it is easier. And, if we start with children, we can also reach the parents.” It’s a common sentiment among those of us who focus on interfaith work with kids.
Their first camp brought together tweens/teens from the Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Islamic traditions in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria. Through camp activities (music, crafts, meetings with faith leaders, and field trips to houses of worship), the campers were able to make friendships, share their cultures, and cultivate their communication skills. By the second year, the camp was already expanding to include a greater number of participants, a wider range of faith traditions (including Armenian Christian), and representation from various municipalities and partnering organizations across Bulgaria. To increase the camp’s visibility, Vladikova and Karadzhova hired professional photographers to document the week’s activities, which included an even greater number of cultural and religious monuments. It didn’t take long for the photographers to become part of the team, offering to document the campers’ day-to-day experiences and growing rapport for free!
Last year, the camp evolved yet again into an international collaboration between two active URI Cooperation Circles as four teens from the Netherlands joined twelve teens from across Bulgaria for a two-part series: five days in Stara Zagora and five days in The Hague. While in Bulgaria, they met with leaders from the various Christian traditions for seminars and Q&A sessions; they visited cultural sites like the Thracian Tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage Center; and they gathered for a workshop with an Islamic mufti in the beautiful Eski Mosque (now a Museum of Religions). They also baked bread together; created art in conjunction with the US-based, on-line youth magazine, KidSpirit; and just enjoyed one another’s company.
After a week-long break, the teens met in The Hague for another five days together. While there, they participated in a pilot educational training program, called Learning to Live Together, developed by Arigatou International. During the training, they learned to articulate multiple dimensions of their identities, to reflect on their interconnectedness, to listen actively and deeply to one another, to recognize their own tendencies for stereotyping “the other,” and to challenge their own ways of thinking. They also toured important cultural centers (like the Peace Palace), visited several houses of worship (including a Hindu temple, a liberal Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque, and a Catholic church), participated in a storytelling workshop led by a CERITA trainer, and spent fun time together at the beach. In describing the overall camp experience, Vladikova echoed another refrain commonly heard in interfaith circles, “The kids learn that ‘interfaith dialogue’ means keeping your faith and your tradition, while being enriched and blessed by new friendships.”
That’s the verbal description of the unique and incredibly rich experience BRIDGES has co-created. But as Vladikova explained to me, “If you really want to see their emotional expressions, if you really want to see how they feel about their experiences, you need pictures.” And that’s where photographers Kalina and Boris Borisov come in. They documented the camps’ activities in hundreds of photos, eventually choosing 40 or 50 to create a 22-panel photo exhibit.
Last October, the exhibit premiered at the National Assembly of Bulgaria in Sofia, with special support from Emil Hristov, deputy chair of the Parliament. The gathering brought together religious leaders from different faith traditions, members of URI-Bulgaria and URI-Netherlands cooperation circles, Bulgarian supporters, and camp participants. The exhibit recently began a multi-city tour that includes Stara Zagora, Veliko Tarnovo, Rousse, Plovdiv, and Belitsa. Local municipal partners will be in attendance, as will local camp attendees. In fact, Vladikova is working with the teen campers to develop unique introductions for the openings in each city. In some places, like Plovdiv, the exhibition will be held in conjunction with an interfaith concert and workshop sessions that will be offered the next day. At the end of September 2019, with the support and cooperation of Arigatou International, the exhibit will travel to the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland where the UN Ambassador from Bulgaria will officially open the event.
Sometimes, interfaith “dialogue” takes the form of creating art with one another across traditional faith boundaries. That certainly happened at the Bridge-Inter-Cultures camp through both painting and storytelling. But BRIDGES has taken that concept one step further. Their innovative and creative efforts show that art, particularly photography in this case, can also be used to share an interfaith story more successfully – and in a way that touches the heart as it glides across faith lines, national borders, and cultural divides.
Header Photo: Pixabay