More than 40 second generation immigrants and church leaders gathered near Cincinnati, Ohio, for a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peace Camp for USMB participants, Aug. 25-27.
Congolese youth and pastors from three USMB churches in Ohio attended: Christian Center the Hand of God in Hamilton; Royal Family International Church in Fairfield; and Restoration Church of Christ in West Chester.
The camp, held at a retreat center at Hueston Woods State Park through funding from MCC Great Lakes, brought together staff from MCC and USMB’s Integrated Immigrant Ministries (IIM).
“We focused on biblical principles of peacemaking, overcoming trauma and the importance of learning the new culture without losing our backgrounds,” says IIM coordinator Henri Ngolo. “This is the first of many events to come.”
Resilient through trauma
According to MCC U.S. Peace Education coordinator Jes Stoltzfus Buller, the Peace Camp provided a hands-on learning experience for young people, offering tools to aid intercultural competence, peacemaking, conflict resolution, trauma healing and resilience.
“(USMB Congolese leaders) came to us and said, ‘We want to do a Peace Camp because peacebuilding is a foundational component of our faith, and it is really applicable to our current life,’” Stoltzfus Buller says. “There’s a large mix of at what point their families have arrived to the U.S. Some of the youth that we were with were born and raised here. Some had been here less than a year, and English was still a learning curve.”
While every immigrant’s experience is different, most have experienced some kind of trauma. Many come to the U.S. from refugee camps. Some children have been separated from their families. Arrival in the U.S. brings additional challenges of a new language and culture. When a person feels unsafe, this activates fight or flight mode and can cause behaviors and acting out.
“There’s a lot of lived trauma in the experience of migrating,” Stoltzfus Buller says, adding that the camp provided space to process and reflect on the trauma through a biblical lens in order to work toward resilience and healing.
For MCC’s Migration Education coordinator Saulo Padilla, the topic is personal. At the Peace Camp, Padilla shared his story of immigrating from Guatemala to Canada in the 1980s.
“That really connected with people,” Stoltzfus Buller says. “They can see we’re not just talking about something theoretical. They’re spending the week with people who have experienced something that they’ve experienced.”
Ngolo agrees: “Having (Saulo) there had a lot of impact.”
The Peace Camp targeted second generation immigrants in high school through age 25, who face challenges at home, school and in the community as they integrate into life in the U.S.
At home, while second generation immigrants are adjusting to the new culture, their parents may still cling to their culture, including language preferences, which can create conflict at home and at church. The camp provided exercises on communication and sought to help children understand their parents and vice versa.
School, too, can be difficult for second generation immigrants, who may experience prejudice or be left out from social activities.
“A lot of them were talking about the experience of coming into communities and feeling unsafe, (whether) being mistreated or the xenophobia they’re fighting in the community,” Padilla says.
Safety is important for immigrants, presenters say, and immigrants tend to stay within their own communities to foster this safety. Leaders challenged immigrants to venture outside their cultural bubbles.
But even in their communities, they may encounter challenges. It can be difficult for someone coming from a refugee camp in Africa to integrate with others who were born in the U.S. and are bilingual.
Yet Stoltzfus Buller says while many immigrants may have experienced significant trauma, much of what they talked about involved typical, everyday struggles.
“Most of the experiences that I heard people talking about were very day-to-day things happening in their current life,” Stoltzfus Buller says. “Family conflict, teenagers arguing with their parents, having different ways of doing things, feeling left out (of) social stuff in school. It’s connected to the fact that their stories are different, their histories are different, their language is different, but it’s also very common stuff.”
The Peace Camp provided hands-on learning. Stoltzfus Buller and Padilla began the Peace Camp by guiding participants to read biblical storis of migration.
“That was a really good exercise for them to see stories similar to their stories in the Bible and to connect with them,” Padilla says.
Participants were invited to draw their life as a river, showing things that have shaped their lives. This “river of life” drawing emphasized the importance of storytelling and provided a tool for young people to talk about things that have created bends in their rivers.
“First we talk about the things that have hurt us and have created trauma,” Padilla says. “Then we go back in the river (and) also put the things that have created resilience.”
Facilitators encouraged participants to share their story with another person, reminding them that it is biblical to share their stories to inform future generations, Padilla says.
Church leaders attended and participated as well.
“The pastors were doing the same activities, knowing what their kids were hearing and able to be a safe space for them as they return back to their home,” Stoltzfus Buller says.
Participants also did an exercise on communication that illustrated the importance of bringing in people who can see the big picture. Two people sat back-to-back. One person had a drawing and attempted to communicate the picture in a way that would allow the other person to draw it. A third person observed both individuals. While not allowed to talk while observing, that person could switch with the person giving instructions at any time.
“We get stuck in these situations, and we can’t see outside what we’re in, but finding ways to have community that helps us see better or to ourselves step out of a situation so that we can see it in from a different perspective is a significant learning,” Stoltzfus Buller says. “Groups that were switching a lot often get done faster and are more accurate.”
The camp also provided free time activities of boating and kayaking on the lake.
“Some of them have never been on a boat or out to a lake,” Padilla says.
Presenters packed a week’s worth of content into one weekend.
“I think it went very well,” Stoltzfus Buller says. “The leaders are ready to start planning round two. I think the kids also, in hearing their reflection in our last session on Sunday morning, had significant insights on what they had learned, so that was really encouraging to see.”
MCC offers Peace Camps in a variety of locations and intends to hold another in January in New York, focused on the criminal justice system in the U.S. MCC is currently working on a curriculum on hospitality, intending to have it available for churches in early 2024, Padilla says.
“One of the things I often come away with from Peace Camps is the value of investing in young people,” Stoltzfus Buller says. “The church needs to continue to open paths for young people to develop and to help be the church. There’s often a dynamic of, ‘The older generations are the church, and the younger generations are being taught the church,’ and I think that investing in people and this idea of hospitality (is important), letting them change us (and) teach us.”
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.