Andy Braner was disillusioned like most of us that violence would one day end in the Middle East. Diplomacy seemed to have failed--our representatives are even less inspiring. Frustrated, Braner decided to bridge the gap by inviting teenagers from the Middle East to his summer camp in Colorado last summer. Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and Christian teens jet skied, hiked and ate together side-by-side through the lens of conversation and humanity. Braner hopes his endeavor will launch future peace ambassadors when the teens return to their respective countries. He figures nothing else has eased religious intolerance and climate of hatred, maybe his teens can change our current path to one of peace.
What does your camp offer?
As we build confidence through our high mountain adventure programs, we've learned friendship is a key to translating belief systems. Many people might look at what we're doing and call it inter faith, but it's significantly more powerful than that. We're not sitting around the camp fire singing Cum Baya to prove to the world we can get along in a short stint. No, we are trying to highlight similarities, learn to respect the differences, and move on down the road.
Most Christians have a preconception that Muslims are trying to kill them, take over the world, and rule by sharia law. Likewise, Most Muslims think Christians are violence loving, porn addicted, bomb making, war mongers trying to destroy their lives. So when you eliminate the two false variables in the relational equation, we find long lasting friendships emerge.
What can world leaders learn from this experiment?
We believe learning to listen to one another is crucial. It seems like the world stage is full of ego maniacs who are trying to save face, put their country at the head of the global empire, and tell everyone else how to live their lives. We find a mutual respect emerge from our friendships developing here at KIVU. When they learn not to fear one another, when they learn they have common needs and common desires, it's amazing to watch togetherness happen. I wonder what the world leaders would gain from taking time out talking, and begin listening to one another for a while.
Are you in touch with political leaders regarding your findings?
I'm trying to figure out how to best connect with people who will listen. I've been in contact with members of Congress who attend the National Prayer Breakfast each February and I'm working to develop relationships in the State Department that may be able to learn what we're doing and how best they can adapt our message.
When did you have a “Wow” moment in seeing how kids were reaching out to others over religious/political lines?
Probably the biggest conflict in the Middle East right now is the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It's interesting how different Muslim groups are all in conflict with one another at least until you start talking about Israel, and then they all line up together. It's amazing to see on both sides of the problem, the significant amount of propaganda coupled with the intense pain and rejection. Israelis who feel the world has left them living right next door to Palestinians who feel like they were forcefully removed from their home. Both watch in fear of the other who makes the next move. Both try and make sure the other knows how big and powerful they are and the innocent teenagers are sitting on the sidelines forming their opinions about who to hate.
A friend of mine did some film work and asked teenagers on both sides what they longed for, and both sets of kids said they wanted peace. I was amazed at how a group of students have so moved from their core understanding of peace to literally hating each other by the time they enter the University.
We found another grave misconception is just simply they don't know one another. The wall separating today's Palestine with modern Israel prevents any sort of sharing. The only time Palestinians come to Jerusalem is to perform manual labor type jobs needed by the Israeli civilization. The only time the Israelis go to Palestine, is well...never.
So there's a complex religious, political, geographical, social, tension happening in Israel that is deeper than simply one side or the other.
What we've found is, if we can remove the people from the backdrop of tension, i.e. bring them to Colorado or somewhere peaceful in the world, and we can create an environment of respect by building relationships, the words that once drew immense pressure can be talked about without the emotional attachment. "This year we saw Muslims, Christians, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists, and some who didn't even know what they were ask tough questions about God, Jesus, and their relationship to God through their lives. When we frame the conversation around loving God, and loving others; it just works."