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Oklahoma camp teaches peace to inner-city children

Peace Challenge campers listen to U.S. Park Ranger Rachel Winters talk about the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The United Methodist camp teaches fifth- and sixth-graders how to resolve conflicts peacefully. UMNS photos by David Huff.

By John Gordon*
Aug. 16, 2007 | OKLAHOMA CITY (UMNS)

Crystal Leevan, 11, looks at an exhibit at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

It’s an unlikely place to start a lesson in peace—the site of the deadliest domestic-terrorism attack on U.S. soil.

"Sixteen buildings in the area were destroyed, and between 300 and 350 buildings in about a 20-block radius were damaged," explains Rachel Winters, National Parks Service tour guide at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

Listening attentively to details about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building are fifth- and sixth-graders attending a weeklong Peace Challenge Camp. The program, in its third year, is sponsored by Skyline Urban Ministry, a mission of The United Methodist Church’s Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference.

"I just felt very sad and angry," says camper Alexis Carr, 11, of Oklahoma City. The 1995 bombing occurred before Carr was born. "I understand that it really doesn’t benefit for anybody to harbor anger," she says.

That’s the connection organizers of the Peace Challenge Camp are hoping children will make. The bombing, which grew out of executed bomber Timothy McVeigh’s grudge against the federal government, killed 168 people, including 19 children.

"We talk with them about the process (by) which violence escalates," says Conna Wilkinson, director of the camp. "And we’ll do some role-playing with them where what starts out to be a minor disagreement can escalate into a violent encounter. I feel that the Murrah building bombing is a good illustration of that on a pretty big scale."

Inside the museum, the campers see pictures and videos of the bombing. They pause to look at toys and shoes that belonged to some of the children killed in the blast.

"It wasn’t their fault," says camper Abby Treadway, 10, of Edmond, Okla. "Why would you blow up a building just because you didn’t like what they thought?"

"We've had kids that have come through here and say this is the first time they've ever spent five days without getting in a fight or getting in trouble," says camp director Conna Wilkinson.

After the visit to the memorial, the youngsters spend five days at a camp near Oklahoma City. At least half of the 16 children attending the camp come from inner-city neighborhoods, where street gangs and fights are common problems.

"We’ve had kids that have come through here and say this is the first time they’ve ever spent five days without getting in a fight or getting in trouble," Wilkinson says. "This is an atmosphere where they can experience what life would feel like if they’re getting everything they need and not having to fight."

During the week, the campers will hear from guest speakers, including a man whose daughter was killed in the bombing. The campers are divided into teams and encouraged to work together and solve problems with words instead of fists.

Art and symbolism

Art is a big part of the Peace Challenge Camp.

"Art is actually a practice of peace," says Jo Anne Alexander, an artist-in-residence at the camp. "If you’re creating something, you can’t be destroying."

As a symbol, the campers will walk through a portal made of tree branches.

"We’ve actually built a portal (so) that the children can have a concrete image to walk through," Alexander says. "A portal is a transition from one place to another, or one idea to another."

Campers also practice meditation, sing and have their own chant: "Who are we? We are peacemakers. Peaceful people make a peaceful world."

Art activities help the campers practice peace.

Camper Raymond Sharrieff of Oklahoma City says the activities help kids understand how to forgive and resolve conflicts without violence.

"Say if I get inside a bad situation, I don’t have to worry about having conflict physically, instead of just talking stuff out," he says. "A lot of people have conflict when they don’t need to."

Solving problems

Patricia Webb, who helped develop the curriculum, says Peace Challenge Camp empowers children to look for grassroots solutions to problems.

"We have to do something different. What we’re doing in the world is not working very well," Webb says.

"We want them to understand that world peace is not something that might be created by a diplomat or a group of high-powered people in a room—that they can have their part, right now today, in creating peace."

And Wilkinson hopes the peaceful practices children learn will last beyond their time at the camp.

"Kids could come to the belief that it actually is possible," she says. "And if they experience it for five days, they have to say, ‘It is possible.’"

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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