Children of different faith communities study peace at EMU

Peace Camp student at EMU
Ana Hart displays her kite with a message of peace.

Do you know any Hebrew words?” “What is a veteran?” “How do you work for peace?”

These were among the conversation starters around the lunch table June 26 as children dined over soup and bread with adults from the Harrisonburg area who are working for peace. The adults included professors, lay community leaders and a representative from Veterans for Peace.

The children were part of an Inter-faith Peace Camp, hosted at Eastern Mennonite University, June 22-26. Planning committee members came from Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities locally. Forty-one children – ages 6 through 12 – came from Muslim and Christian communities.

Peace Camp students at EMU
Camp assistant Michaela Mast and camper Maha Afridi, along with other campers, create music together at Park View Mennonite Church.

According to one of the organizers, Vesna Hart, the program sought to introduce participants to Abrahamic faith traditions in order to build bridges of peace between their own faith communities and other communities. The “Abrahamic faiths” are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, so called because the major Old Testament figure Abraham is a part of the scripture of all three faiths.

After a successful three-day pilot camp last year and positive feedback from children, parents and the wider community, organizers expanded this year’s camp to five days and involved more faith communities in the planning.

“Some amazing things happened this week,” said co-director Lynette Mast, a teacher in the peacebuilding curriculum at Eastern Mennonite Elementary School. “Much of it comes in the actual activities, but it also has to do with families mingling and trust being built between these diverse groups in our local community.”

The camp utilized large and small group work including recreational, artistic, dramatic and musical activities. Other opportunities to promote interfaith understanding came through sharing of cultural foods and open time for exploration and inquiry.

Peace Camp instructors and students at EMU
Camper Sophia Alder-Stephens, Israa Alhasani and Vesna Hart, organizers and campers’ parents, and Naglaa Da’mes, a camper’s grandmother. knot a quilt following a family potluck. This effort sought to engage families in a service project, something important to all three faiths. Nonperishable commodities from a food drive were donated to newcomer immigrant families in the local community.

Field trips were held during the week to the Beth El Congregation in Harrisonburg, the Islamic Association of Shenandoah Valley (the mosque) and to Park View Mennonite Church. Campers and family members gathered for an evening potluck to celebrate peacemaking and share their experiences as a final activity.

Assistant John Stephens, a 2008 justice, peace and conflict studies graduate of EMU, noted that an opening session of breakfast together with the children and their parents set a “relaxed tone for the week.”

“The children got to see the similarities they have with people who are different from themselves,” observed Muslim assistant Bejan Rasoul, a native of Kurdistan. “It will make it easier for them to connect with all kinds of people in the future.”

“Pretty much every part was my favorite,” said participant Lane Martin Burkholder of Harrisonburg, as he ran off with his peace kite flying high behind him, atop the hill behind EMU.