In Third Year, Interfaith Peace Camp Keeps Growing

By Tom Mitchell, Daily News-Record

Children fly kites with personal message of peace during EMU's Interfaith Peace Camp
As one of the final activities during Interfaith Peace Camp week, children created and flew kites that included each camper’s personal “message of peace.” Photo by Lindsey Kolb

Two years after it started as a brief pilot program, an interdenominational summer camp continues to grow dramatically.

The Interfaith Peace Camp at EMU now lasts a week and has 44 children attending, more than twice as many youngsters as the inaugural camp in 2008.

“We have a waiting list,” said Vesna Hart, co-chair of the camp’s planning committee. “What we do is pretty unique.”

What the peace camp does is join kids from different religions and nationalities for five days of art, drama, music and recreation. Through such activities, and the consumption of new ethnic foods, participants also build friendships with children from other cultures.

The camp, which ran Monday through Friday, June 28-July 2 at EMU, featured stories and lessons that help first through sixth graders grasp three religions known as the Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Accordingly, the camp featured field trips to Beth El Synagogue, the Islamic Association of Shenandoah Valley (IASV) Mosque and Trinity Presbyterian Church.

Jeremy Bacheller from Staunton, Va., talks with a group of children during
Jeremy Bacheller from Staunton, Va., talks with a group of children during “Lunch with a Peacemaker” on the last day of Interfaith Peace Camp. Photos by Jon Styer

Hart and other adults created the peace camp in 2008 to teach youth intercultural goodwill: the three-day mini-camp drew 22 children. Three congregations – Beth El, IASV and Park View Mennonite Church hosted visits.

Steady Growth

Last year EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement, Abraham’s Tent, partnered with the camp’s founders. Gretchen H. Maust, associate director of Abraham’s Tent, served as camp administrator.

She noted that word of mouth promoted the peace camp so successively that there was a waiting list. Some participants are out-of-towners who, visiting Harrisonburg for the summer, learned about the camp and decided to attend: several people came from Augusta County while one child hailed from North Carolina.

Others came even farther. Adam Baibeche arrived with his father, Abder, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Abder teaches college-level French.

Adam, 7, who speaks French, Spanish and English, said he “wasn’t sure I’d like” the camp but soon changed his mind. “I enjoyed weaving and art class, and making friends,” said Adam, attending the camp for the first time.

The Baibeche family reflects the camp’s human mosaic. Abder Baibeche grew up in Algeria in a Muslim home and his wife, Andrea, comes from a Mennonite family in Harrisonburg.

Others at the camp have attended before. Israa Alhassani arrived with daughter Jenna Altaii, 9, for the second year. Alhassani, a Muslim who teaches Arabic at James Madison University, leads the camp’s art classes.

“For me, the camp celebrates diversity,” Alhassani said. “At her school, my daughter didn’t want to be different. Since attending this camp, she’s proud to be different.” While she likes the fun and friendship the peace camp offers, Jenna’s interest runs deeper.

“I like seeing new ideas,” she said, adding that exposure to other types of thinking “can help you in the future.”

Symbolic Bridge

One art project of the camp symbolized the theme for this year’s event: “Building Bridges, Building Peace.” Children spent several days constructing a model bridge.

Once finished, the children painted their hands and stamped handprints along the railing.

Children used the bridge as a tool to learn how to take steps to understand each other’s disagreements and to move closer together to find a mutual solution.

Maria Bowman, 2010 EMU grad, helps children construct bridges to remind them of the importance of collaborating with each other for creative solutions to conflict during EMU's Interfaith Peace Camp
Maria Bowman, 2009 EMU grad, helps children construct bridges to remind them of the importance of collaborating with each other for creative solutions to conflict. Photo by Lindsey Kolb

Hart said, “This camp plants seeds of understanding and tolerance in the children. It also involves teens who help with the camp, and many adults who all work together to make the camp a meaningful learning experience.”