What happens when Jewish, Muslim and Christian kids attend an interfaith summer camp together?
Yes, the campers at the London Interfaith Peace Camp learn about the moral and spiritual values shared by practitioners of the three Abrahamic religions-“the People of the Book,” as they are known in Islam. But, perhaps more important, they learn to empathize and co-operate with adherents of all three creeds long before prejudice sets in. The seeds of a chance for more harmonious future are sown in their young minds.
“At the most basic level, they make friends with children of the other faiths. And there is interface and dialogue that promote peace and solidarity,” said Natalie Hleba, camp director, who serves as a Roman Catholic lay minister to youth at Western University’s Office of Campus Ministry at King’s University College in London, Ont. This personal contact can offset biased and negative stereotypes they may see in the media in the context of political strife. “At the end of camp, when they hear about people of these faiths in the news, they can think of a friend and see the person rather than the public perception,” Hleba said.
Now in its fourth year, the week-long $50-per-session camp attracts ever-increasing numbers of children entering Grades 1 to 8, and even has a waiting list. For the 2016 session, August 15-19, the campers included 29 Christians, 21 Muslims and five Jews. In addition, there were 16 interfaith teen volunteers and three adult co-ordinators: Sister Shahin Pardhan of the Al-Mahdi Islamic Community Centre, Rabbi Deborah Dressler of London’s Temple Israel and Pastor Charlene Jongejan Harder of Valleyview Mennonite Church.
The peace camp, in fact, has Mennonite roots: it’s modelled on a successful U.S. initiative launched by the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This year, the London session is being sponsored by the Centre for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Learning at King’s.
The children enjoy the usual social life and outdoor activities of summer camp, but also spend time going beneath the surface of the Abrahamic religions to discover both their common core and the idiosyncratic beauty of each. They learn to build on these for harmony and co-operation, and little could arguably be more essential in a world of conflicts often fought along religious divides. They meet an imam, a minister and a rabbi, and are free to question each other about their beliefs.
“We are all looking to create a peaceful world for future generations,” said Sukeina Bhimji, a Burundi-born Muslim filmmaker who made the compelling documentary Shalom, Salam, Peace about the 2015 session. “This camp addresses the questions the kids have and discusses interfaith differences in a fun way,” she said. “It was beautiful to capture the children at the moment when the counsellors explain what is happening. And the counsellors are so passionate about what they’re doing.”
One of the most interesting learning exercises relates to Scripture and the common teachings in the sacred books of all three faiths. “The rabbi put up passages from the Torah, the Bible and the Qu’ran, and asked the kids to identify which book they came from,” said Pardhan. “They can’t tell which comes from which. Each passage contained verses about love and respect for one another, common themes across all faith groups.”
Her twin sons, Khaleel and Qasim, now age eight, have attended the camp for the past three years. Asked if they enjoyed learning about other faiths and were looking forward to this year’s session, the duo simultaneously responded with a resounding, “Yeah!”
Hands-on fun at the 2015 London Interfaith Peace Camp. Photo: Sukeina Bhimji
The campers also visit mosques, churches and synagogues. “For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve been inside the place of worship of another faith,” Pardhan said. Back at the centre, the educational program emphasizes shared beliefs, such as one transcendent deity, as well as common religious observance-for example, similarities in dietary laws in Judaism and Islam, and the practice of covering one’s head when entering a synagogue or mosque.
The sessions focus on religious similarities young campers kids can easily relate to. “When kids ask why they have to remove their shoes at the mosque, we explain that Moses was asked to remove his sandals when he went to speak to God at the burning bush,” explained Pardhan.
Many Christian children are surprised to learn of the important roles played by Jesus and Mary in Islam. “When I share with them that the name of Jesus is mentioned in the Qu’ran more often than the name of Muhammad-25 times versus four times-they are shocked,” said Pardhan. And an entire chapter of the Qu’ran is devoted to Mariam, the Arabic name for Jesus’ mother, Mary-and a model for understanding why some Muslim women cover their heads in public. “Mary is treated with high esteem in Islam, and when Muslim women wear the hijab, they are trying to emulate her modesty and chastity,” Pardhan said.
Each year, parents and counsellors have a festive potluck supper at a mosque. “It’s wonderful to see adults of different faiths mingling together and learning from one another,” said Pardhan. And each year, there are requests to launch a peace camp for adults.
The benefits of the camp are quickly spreading by word of mouth, and the organizers are gearing up to accommodate more and more campers. “Word is quickly getting out to the wider community,” said Hleba.
As the camp grows, the organizers hope it will become an even stronger beacon for interfaith understanding and a robust emblem of Canada’s tolerance and religious diversity.