Seven years ago, Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church, located in the Beverly neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, was pondering how to revamp their vacation Bible school program to serve as more of an outreach to the neighborhood. Even calling the program “Vacation Bible School,” they realized, was unlikely to interest anyone not already connected to the church.
The congregation had done some peace programming in the past, so a council member brought up the idea of having a youth peace camp. Since then, for one week every summer, 40 to 50 kids from the community have taken part in a peace camp based on restorative practices.
“Restorative practices are about how you deal with conflict in a way that seeks to repair the relationship,” said Bethlehem pastor Jennie English-Dumont. “The idea is to begin with kids and help them learn skills of being peacemakers and how to build community in a really healthy way.”
The camp’s activities include peace circles, a class on nonviolent conflict resolution and yoga sessions to help kids find inner peace.
This year’s Peace Camp theme was “Love your neighbor,” and each day the young participants learned about different kinds of neighbors, starting with local ones and expanding their frame of reference to include global neighbors.
“The idea was to show that neighbors can be defined in all kinds of ways,” said Kathy Maybaum Miller, a member of Bethlehem and a Peace Camp volunteer.
Healthy conflict-resolution skills aren’t only part of the curriculum of Peace Camp; they’re also put into practice when needed.
“If two children get in an argument, there is no timeout,” English-Dumont said. “Instead, a leader sits with the children and they go through a series of questions that aren’t about assigning blame but are to help each child understand where the other is coming from. We talk about how to work together to come up with a plan to make things right and find a way forward. The most important thing isn’t about who is right and wrong but about restoring the relationship.”
Bethlehem has accomplished its goal of creating a program that could serve the broader community: the majority of the camp participants come from outside the congregation.
“We don’t shy away from God and who we are, but … renaming [the camp] and focusing on a value that, whether you’re a churchgoer or not, you agree is a good thing has really broadened the appeal of the camp,” Miller said.
This is true for Amy Berglind, whose two daughters attended Peace Camp this year. They aren’t members of Bethlehem, Berglind said, but she was interested in enrolling her daughters in Peace Camp because she liked the name and the program came highly recommended by her neighbors. She also liked that it was a daylong camp, which would help her daughters build independence.
Berglind said her daughters loved the yoga sessions, which gave them a chance to learn the benefits of mindfulness, focus and self-reflection.
“It’s important for children to learn healthy conflict resolution because children are faced with it every day, whether it be between siblings, on the playground or at sports practice,” Berglind said. “And children, like all people, even face conflict within themselves. Peace Camp helped to teach my girls specific tactics for being true to themselves, and activities were designed to teach them to be open-minded, respectful and understanding of others. Peace Camp also helped to show how outside influences can affect the way they think and [how] to be critical and thoughtful in decision-making.”
Peace in the neighborhood
Peace Camp is only part of Bethlehem’s work in striving to be peacemakers. About five years ago, the congregation formed a Peace Team ministry.
“We were figuring out how we could make a positive impact in our surrounding community,” English-Dumont said. “We felt called to this restorative justice peace work, but it was confusing to us because we didn’t know how to do it. We knew how to open a food pantry but not how to enter into healthy community-building with something peace-related.”
The congregation has found their way and connected with other churches and partners in the community that are active in this kind of work. Bethlehem’s Peace Team has helped the congregation develop peace themes around the liturgical calendar and work through such transitions as a rescheduling of the weekly worship service.
“It’s important for children to learn healthy conflict resolution because children are faced with it every day, whether it be between siblings, on the playground or at sports practice.”
The Peace Team also collaborates with the neighborhood schools and surrounding community to offer workshops and programs on restorative practices. Team members have hosted “civil conversations” aimed at bringing people together around such divisive issues as immigration and kneeling during the national anthem. The events provide a safe space for people trying to understand others’ points of view.
Lori Smith, who works in the criminal justice system, was drawn to the Peace Team for its focus on restorative options. She participated in the team for about six months before joining Bethlehem, and she feels as if the atmosphere of peace and rest resonates throughout the congregation.
“I think that with the explosion of social media we don’t give ourselves, as adults or kids, time to think and develop practices that encourage ways to address conflict, and sustain and repair relationships,” Smith said. “It’s helped me as an adult, and it’s been great to see the kids pick up on it and use it in their own lives and settings.”
English-Dumont said she hopes the work of the congregation and the Peace Team helps raise awareness about the realities of violence and makes clear that violence in communities is not someone else’s problem, as we all belong to each other.
“In our community, we are in the far South Side of Chicago and we’re not as directly impacted by violence as some places, but we’re not immune to it either,” she said. “What we’re doing is particular to our location and setting. It’s good and important, but it’s just one small piece. And I think it’s something all Lutheran congregations can do. Building awareness of violence and heightening our sense of connectedness is something we can all do in our daily lives.”