Peace Village embraces children in Ohio
Who would have thought that in a small, rural Ohio community you would find a group of 22 children learning the life story of the Buddha, discovering Jesus’ mission to bring peace to the world, playing twister to experience the interconnectedness of all things, and wading in the river to catch tadpoles and fish?
Welcome to Peace Village, a four-day summer camp (and an alternative to Vacation Bible School) for elementary school students sponsored and led by First Congregational Church, Mount Vernon, Ohio, held Aug. 3-6.
“Peace Village is not about one religious tradition over another – it’s about all faiths and all peoples having the common unified hope and desire for peace,” said the Rev. Scott Elliott, pastor of First Congregational and senior camp coordinator. “It’s about spreading and developing and embracing that hope and desire, and taking and showing children how to be peace-full – and in the process, learn from them, too!”
Peace Village, which started in the UCC 20 years ago in the Pacific Northwest, teaches children peaceful practices through fun, outdoor adventure, classes, music and interfaith stories. The four components to the program – Peace Within Self, Peace and the Planet, Peace and our Culture, Peace with Others – have a strong theological base, Elliott said, “because Jesus modeled a ministry that both embraced children and taught peace.”
“We went out of our way to make it an interfaith friendly camp: not only could non-Christians be involved, but we actively sought and encouraged other faiths, and took a respectful and revered approach to them,” Elliott continued. “Each day, we heard peace stories from different faiths by people who practice the faith. We heard peace stories by a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew and a Christian. A couple of days, we also wove in Native American peace stories told by one of our college counselors who is studying that tradition at a local college.”
Joy Brennan, a lay ordained Zen Buddhist meditation teacher and a professor of Buddhism and East Asian religions at Kenyon College, shared the shared the life story of the Buddha with the campers.
“The kids’ eyes were wide with interest as I told them about how the Buddha was raised wealthy, in the lap of luxury, and still had to go off by himself to search inside himself for peace,” Brennan said. “They had lots of questions and comments afterwards – everything from, ‘What did he eat while he sat under the tree looking for peace?’ to ‘Sometimes I meditate at home in my room by listening to relaxing music.’ I was gratified to see that these kids are growing up with the knowledge that all religious traditions offer paths to peace.”
Elliott, a lawyer in Oregon before called to ministry, went to church at the congregation led by Peace Village founder, the Rev. Charles Busch. Elliott’s children were involved as campers, and he worked at a Peace Village as an intern in seminary. “It is my belief that Peace Village is the way of the future for the VBS slot at progressive faith centers,” he said about bringing he concept to Ohio. “It’s all about teaching peace through respect and kindness and love. I had a pastor spend a morning with our Peace Village, and he is so excited by those three hours that he plans to do one at his church next summer.”
“For us, typical VBS curricula often feel like an agglomeration of Bible stories stitched together around arbitrary themes,” said the Rev. Dwight P. Davidson, pastor of The United Church of Granville. “After a week of this kind of programming, our volunteers sometimes leave feeling that all they’ve done is provide neighborhood parents some free babysitting, and their kids with a week of group entertainment. The missional drive is just not there much of the time. What we saw at Peace Village was something different.”
“Peace Village is a multi-faith program that both introduces children to folks from different religious traditions,” said Davidson, “and to some, key skills that can help them live more peacefully with themselves, with others, and with the planet. Mt. Vernon First Congregational UCC hosted the program at a beautiful community park, so from our vantage point at the central picnic shelter, we could literally look around to the different stations to see, in the “Peace with Self” area, kids giggling, perched on one leg, doing Qigong, while in the “Peace with the World” area, flappy-armed “birds” – having learned about the planet’s rhythms of life – were running around looking for their “prey”; while over in the “Peace with Others” area, kids tangled in a human knot were practicing using their words to work their way out of a dilemma. The kids were having fun, but they were also learning real-life skills.”
The Rev. Scott Schieber, who pastors Highwater UCC in the neighboring community of Newark, came to Peace Village as a presenter and enrolled his 6th-grade daughter, Cate, in the four-day experience.
“I was excited to tell the children a story about Jesus’ mission to bring peace into the world,” said Schieber. “I think Jesus is the perfect example of how we are to advocate for the powerless and ‘the other’ in a non-violent way. I taught the children about Jesus’ teaching the Beatitudes because it exemplifies inner peace and what to strive for in our relationships.”
Charlotte Watson, a longtime First Congregational member who helped direct Peace Village, has had a lot of experience coordinating camps and VBS outdoors. Watson said she found this concept very successful. She liked the idea of the teaching children about peace and tolerance of different faiths, and said the organizers cast a wide net to make sure all were welcome, which paid dividends in the end.
“Two of the parents, what they said to me the first day … One of the parents was quite nervous, because her child is biracial, and she had experienced hatred against her child. Another parent brought a child who is autistic,” Watson said. “After the first day, both mothers said their children came home a little bit more willing to help, and a little bit kinder. To me, that made the entire camp experience worth it. Be kind, be safe, and listen to their leaders and to each other. We reinforced those ideas all week. And if we can get children to do that – that is a great premise for vacation bible school – getting along with people who are different from you.”
“By saying that we don’t care what your faith is, come to an interfaith-friendly, community-wide summer peace camp. That doesn’t sound like VBS, it sounds like someplace you want to send your kids,” said Elliott. “We’re in a conservative rural town and had 22 families show up for something new to the area.”
“I liked making new friends and learning about peace and the planet,” said camper Cate Schrieber. “I liked hearing stories about other religions and how they all work for peace.”
It’s a growing concept.
“There are now 23 camps in 11 states. We expect this number to multiply by summer 2016,” said the Rev. Charles Busch, the UCC minister who started Peace Village in 1995. “More than half the camps are hosted by UCC churches, some for years.” He cited long-time relationships with two churches in Oregon – Congregational UCC, Lincoln City, has been sponsoring a peace summer camp for 20 years, and First Congregational UCC, Eugene, 12 years. In Washington State, Columbia Gorge Peace Village, Hood River, was started by two local UCC churches eight years ago and serves upwards of 150 campers.
Elliott is already thinking about serving more campers in Ohio next year.
“Peace Village really works and the kids love it – and so do all the volunteers,” said Elliott. “In short, it’s a Divine experience.”
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