by Samantha Lioi, Minister of Peace and Justice
What does Anabaptist witness and ministry look like up-close? When summer comes, for some folks it looks like teaching a second-grader to explore ways he can care for the earth, or giving a 10-year-old creative ways to deal with conflicts she’ll face at school. Congregations from Allentown to Philadelphia have created summer Peace Camps as practical places to live Christ’s transforming love among their neighbors. In some ways, the camps function similarly to traditional Vacation Bible Schools, but with content deeply relevant to the conflicts and crises kids face in our increasingly fragmented culture. Peace Camps can offer space for children to claim their identity as God’s children, to believe they can be active in stirring up hope in their part of the world.
In the next few weeks, Samantha Lioi, Minister of Peace and Justice for Franconia and Eastern District Conferences, will take a look at three conference Peace Camps that are giving space to putting here-and-now flesh and bone on our Anabaptist understandings of Christian faith, beginning with Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pa., then moving on to Philadelphia Praise Center in South Philly, and finishing with Samantha’s own experience helping to lead the Peace Camp for Ripple Allentown.
Since 2007, Meredith Ehst of Salford has brought her experience in public education to her leadership of the congregation’s summer Peace Camp, a week-long evening program serving children from Kindergarten through fifth grade. This year they welcomed 75 children, their largest camp yet, drawing 46 kids from the area who are not directly connected with the congregation.
The camp was born in 2006 after the community’s Vacation Bible School had lost energy. Mary Jane Hershey, a Salford elder in the realm of peacemaking and justice-building, saw an advertisement for a Peace Camp run by Quakers in nearby Gwynedd. She asked if she could come and observe, and left with copies from their notebooks and eagerness to try it back home.
Each year Salford chooses a theme verse and age-appropriate learning goals for the week. The youngest learn that they are loved by God and created with unique gifts. They learn to accept the differences between themselves and others and celebrate what each person brings through self-portraits.
Second and third-graders are old enough to learn about peace with the earth, touring and working in Salford’s community garden. They create original “ads” that they post on paper grocery bags to encourage the public to make ecologically responsible choices. This portion of the camp is grounded in what the kids already know when they arrive, and they have the chance to build on this and take ownership for making a difference in their community. Meredith laughed remembering that each year, inevitably, this group decides they can go without electric lights, and they spend the rest of the week in a slightly darker classroom!
The oldest children engage a curriculum called Talk It Out, gaining skills for reconciling conflict without resorting to physical force. Everyone spends some time in the classroom, some playing cooperative games, and some sitting down to eat together.
In fact, sitting around tables for dinner is one of the most significant parts of the Peace Camp, says Pastor Joe Hackman, as it provides a practice and space for community that is unusual for some of the children. This ministry is giving birth to possibilities for new forms of witness; this year included an adult portion of Peace Camp and a barbeque for the parents on Friday as part of their closing celebration.
Peace Camp has become a way to spread practical knowledge and skills for peacemaking to people around them – ministering from a place of knowing their neighbor’s needs as well as their own children’s needs. “We always have children with no fixed address,” says Mary Jane. “We send out mailings and some come back.” They are glad to know they are connecting with kids who experience frequent transitions, which can foster feelings of insecurity and deepen the need for an identity as God’s beloved child—and for skills to handle differences and disagreements.
Next week, Philadelphia Praise Center →