Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Peacemaking in Maine

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God
Matthew 5:9, NRSV

Where do you suppose you might find one of the most interesting and exciting projects for making peace in the world today?  London?  Belfast?  New York?  Tokyo?  Mumbai?

How about Otisfield, Maine? 

For 20 years Seeds of Peace has brought together youth from nations in conflict for two sessions lasting three-and-a-half weeks each in a former boy’s camp located in Otisfield.  Founded by John Wallach, a foreign correspondent and co-author of two books on the Middle East, and beginning with a few dozen Israelis and Palestinians, more than 5,000 campers and educators from 27 countries have come to Otisfield to learn how to reach out to their enemies.  This year over 200 campers are participating, including Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Americans.  At the same time, 18 camp graduates are crewing the 125-foot schooner “Spirit of Massachusetts” on a 1,000 mile cruise, starting in Portland, Maine, with calls in New York and Boston. 

So how does it work?

Much of the daily program is the same as in hundreds of other youth camps around the country, with swimming, crafts, boating, archery, softball, soccer, ropes course, cricket, hiking and other typical activities.  There is one big difference, though – campers are assigned to groups that include participants from countries with which theirs is in conflict.  Thus, Israelis find themselves working and playing with Palestinians, Indians with Pakistanis, and so on.  This could be a counselor or camp director’s nightmare, but there is one other critical component: structured dialogue.

The groups spend a significant part of each day in discussions, led by trained facilitators, in which each camper presents him or herself honestly and in depth.  They are taught to use “I statements,” describing the world as they experience it.  Since most of the world’s conflicts have religious components, personal faith, or lack thereof is an essential part of what participants share.

Sounds like the local school’s multicultural curriculum?  Not exactly.  The purpose of the sharing, religious topics included, is not to make a neat list of how many similarities there are within the group, but rather to understand the core beliefs of each member.  That includes areas in which they do not see eye-to-eye, and deeper areas where beliefs and understandings may be diametrically opposed.  The purpose is not to win an argument, but to see the world through the eyes of someone you have been taught is an enemy.  When the day’s dialogue time is over, an Indian may find herself 30 feet up on a zip line, relying on a Pakistani to secure her harness, or an Israeli may depend on his Palestinian partner to right their canoe in the middle of the lake.

“We’re not here to shy away from conflict,” said Eric Kapenga, communications director for the camp, “We’re here to confront it.” 

Humaria, from India, said, “What is unique and special about this particular camp is that people never discriminate on the basis of caste, creed, religion or nationality. There is a safe and secure environment where every Seed [participant] is able to express their honest views.”

“The media and politicians make it seem impossible for ‘enemies’ to live together,” said Hatem, 16, from Cairo.  “Camp doesn’t end when you leave.  It begins when you leave.” 

This last is the key.  Headquartered in New York City, Seeds of Peace has year-round staff in Amman, Gaza, Jerusalem, Kabul, Lahore, Mumbai, Otisfield, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv.  An emerging network of graduates builds on the lessons learned at camp, and develops relationships across the political divides. Programs enable graduates to come together within and across borders to explore how their positions and industries can be directed towards alleviating the root causes of conflict.  They launch high potential collaborations and initiatives, accelerating their paths to leadership and maintaining connections to each other and to Seeds of Peace.

This summer 65 Seeds graduates from around the world are meeting in Ireland for a program on conflict resolution.  “Slowly but surely, more and more of us will be in key positions and places where we can influence others.” Says Lior, an Israeli Seed and news anchor on Israeli TV.

Those of us in the Christian community have a mandate to pay attention to peacemakers wherever they may be found.  Our Lord calls them nothing less than “children of God,” and in an era as fractious as this we can be inspired and encouraged wherever we find deep and honest attempts to transcend violence and hatred, not through denying differences, but by grasping our common humanity across the tragic divides that history has imposed.

To learn more about Seeds of peace, visit their website.  http://www.seedsofpeace.org/

Howard MacMullen
©July, 2012

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