By Andrew Gale
Bulgarian Youth Camp
In the summer of 2011, a small youth camp of about 20 students met in Bulgaria. It was an attempt to bring about community and reconciliation between two different churches. At this camp, half of the students attending were from the dominant Bulgarian population while the other half were from a smaller, Turkish-speaking community. My friends Dave and Kathy, Americans working with the church in Bulgaria at the time, expressed the division between the two communities as a difference of history and culture, mixed with intense prejudice.
But in 2011, these worlds collided. Dave and Kathy knew the collision would not be easy, but were hopeful that the realization that all participating were Christians would be a uniting factor. Kathy tells the story of a grandmother of one participant who called her on the morning they were leaving to express that her grandson would not be allowed to room with a ‘gypsy’–a setback before they had even left for the event. When they arrived they were notified by an employee at the camp that the grandmother had also called the camp and requested a room change for her grandson.
When the grandmother arrived to pick up her grandson at the end of camp she was met with story after story from her grandson about how kind everyone was. He felt included; loved. The young boy saw the similarities and the humanity of the Turkish youth, not the prejudice he had been enculturated to see. As his grandmother listened to the story, tears came down her face.
Life in America
We are currently living in the unique, often precarious, election season in the United States. Every four years we spend a year (at least) talking about all the things that make us different from one another. We split hairs on issues that, though certainly pertinent and important, allow us to see those we disagree with as “out of touch,” at best, or evil, at worst. Participation in civic society is a beautiful gift, but it often entails us distinguishing much more of what separates us than what unites us. If the political voices we are hearing currently reflect, in any way, the hearts and minds of those living in our country, we are a fractured, divided people.
The American Church
I wish it were true that these kinds of misrepresentations of those who are different than us and those we disagree with were found only in politics. Then, at least, we could stand up righteously as the church and say we will have nothing to do with it. Even Christians, whose citizenships are bound up in more than earthly status (as Paul reminds us Philippians) can fall prey to harmful dichotomies. Sometimes these division come in the form of hyperbolic personifications of those we see as “the other” who are found within our own church. In these cases we can’t understand how someone who sits through the same sermons and sings the same hymns (or worship choruses if your church is so inclined) can think differently than we do. The sacredness of what we call the “sanctuary” (meant to be a safe place for all people) is in jeopardy.
Another, sometimes even more cancerous form of division within Christian believers is outside of the church in the mischaracterizations of other church communities. The common mentality that the other Christian communities in our vicinity have yet to reach their full potential in Christ. If only we could all attain to the glorious stature of MY community. In many cases this is formed from a love of our church, but it keeps us from loving one another.
Teaching our Children Well
My daughter, Eleanor, is three years old. She is at that age where she is quite confident in what she likes and what she wants. If my wife and I make decisions without consulting her we often spend the rest of the day trying to convince her of our decision. She is verbal and stubborn. A challenging combination.
Watching Eleanor interact with other kids is always interesting. Recently, in a play date with one of her pals, she wanted to do one thing while her friend Ezra wanted to do another. Eleanor presented her case as to why Ezra should join her in playing with the toy shopping cart and go to the grocery store. Ezra kindly expressed that he wanted to play with the train. And here was their impasse. Two children disagreeing on something as simple as what to play. Neither would give any ground. My first reaction is to tell my child to give in and play with the train set (which is the option I ended up at). And that is certainly a good thing to do. We all have to make compromises in life. But, it’s also ok to disagree. It’s ok to want different things. It’s ok that Eleanor wants to play like she is going shopping (a skill she has inherited no doubt). And it’s ok that Ezra doesn’t.
Don’t hear that I am advocating for us to keep our children apart because they don’t want to play the same thing. Most of the time sharing together is the best option. But I think along with that, we need to remind kids, even at a young age, that everyone is different. And there may be things we disagree on, even important things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t remain friends. The differences between the Turkish immigrants and the Bulgarian nationals may have seemed insurmountable to their parents, but kids have a special ability to see others as human. It’s a trait we would do well to mirror.
In Bulgaria, the uniting of these two ethnically different communities was not taking place within adult congregations. And in some ways, the prejudice was simply precipitated. But by engaging youth they were able to begin to break down years of stereotypes and allow the youth to see each for who they were, humans made in the image of God. The camp has been going for five years now. In 2014 the camps ethnic make-up included: Turkish (20), Bulgarian (14), English (7), Russian (6), German (3), and Korean (2).
Though this ability to be different and yet remain in relationship might seem simplistic, it’s a trait that we must seek to inhabit. It is often hard to see those who think differently than us as human. Instead, it is much easier to caricature and minimize their views than to recognize that they are also working to be faithful. The hope of the Bulgarian camp, and one that we might do well to consider, is not to change the other person into someone they are not just so they reflect me. But to realize that, even though we are different, we can find ways to live in loving community with one another.