September 2, 2016

‘A better understanding’: A week of fun and faith at summer camp ‘builds bridges’ for Muslims, Catholics

In early August, the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp in Brown County became the setting for about 150 Muslim youths from across the country to enjoy a week of swimming, canoeing, climbing and learning about their faith. It also became an opportunity for members of the two faiths to learn from each other. Here, two advisers of the Muslim Youth of North America camp, Uzair Siddiqui, left, and Fariha Hossain, pose for a photo with Anne Taube, assistant camp director of the CYO’s Camp Rancho Framasa. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

In early August, the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp in Brown County became the setting for about 150 Muslim youths from across the country to enjoy a week of swimming, canoeing, climbing and learning about their faith. It also became an opportunity for members of the two faiths to learn from each other. Here, two advisers of the Muslim Youth of North America camp, Uzair Siddiqui, left, and Fariha Hossain, pose for a photo with Anne Taube, assistant camp director of the CYO’s Camp Rancho Framasa. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

BROWN COUNTY—The smiles spread spontaneously, creating the kind of infectious joy that immediately connects people, no matter their backgrounds or faiths.

The young Muslim Americans who were spending a week swimming, canoeing, climbing and learning more about their faith at the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp in Brown County now wanted to learn a special song from the young Catholics who were serving as their life guards, canoeing guides and climbing instructors.

The young Muslims had noticed that the words to “The Great Amen!” song are etched on a wall of the dining hall at the archdiocese’s Camp Rancho Framasa, where Catholic campers for years and years have ended their prayers with the lyrics, “Amen! H-A-P-P-Y! Yeah, God!”—followed by singing “Amen!” over and over again.

So at the final campfire during that early August week, some of the young Catholics taught some of the young Muslims the right way to sing the song, and the woods filled with a loud, joyous, continuing chorus of “Amens!”

The smiles lasted even longer.

“That was great,” recalls a smiling Fariha Hossain, a 21-year-old Muslim who was one of the two main advisers for the camp.

“That was cool,” says a smiling Anne Taube, a 30-year-old Catholic who is the assistant director of Camp Rancho Framasa.

‘Our Church is welcoming’

When Kevin Sullivan was approached by the Muslim Youth of North America about having its annual summer youth camp this year at Rancho Framasa, the co-director of the CYO camp knew that it was “fairly common in the camping industry” for an organization to “rent” a camp and have the camp staff provide meals, housekeeping, lifeguarding and other services.

He also knew the dates that the Muslim Youth organization requested—Aug. 5-11—came after the end of the CYO camp’s regular summer schedule, so he didn’t hesitate to welcome the group, especially because he viewed it as an opportunity for collaboration between the two faiths.

“We all need that today,” Sullivan says. “As Catholics, we are all raised to believe that our Church is welcoming and is the first to reach out. We tell our staff over and over that our relationships with anyone who comes through our camp are changing the world. With that in mind, why wouldn’t we want their group to be present with us?”

Such a welcoming embrace hasn’t always been a guarantee at previous camps across the country, say the leaders of the Muslim youth camp.

“We have had negative experiences with camp sites where a local community came to the gates of the camp and protested why there was a Muslim camp,” says Uzair Siddiqui, a co-camp adviser. “This camp has been the exact opposite. There have been many smiles and a lot of opportunities for the campers to interact with the staff.”

The interactions have left lasting impressions on the 150 Muslim campers, their 21 Muslim counselors and the Catholic staff who helped them all week.

‘We aren’t different’

Consider the experience of Scott Hartman, the CYO camp’s program manager who helped and interacted with the Muslims youths—ages 12 to 18—as they swam, canoed and tackled the high ropes challenge. He was struck by how the youths followed a schedule of praying five times a day during camp—and how they prepared to pray each time.

“They wash their hands and face before they pray because they believe they’re talking one on one with God—which I believe, too—but I haven’t always been concerned about my appearance when I do,” Hartman says.

“Learning about their culture and religion has been the best part for me. We got to pray together at the first meal. They asked God to bless the food and protect us from harm. I could agree with everything in their prayer.”

Taube had a similar reaction as she watched a group of campers perform a skit in which two of the youths were cast as Taylor Swift and Kanye West, two popular celebrities who have had conflicts.

“Their point was how we spend a lot of our energy focusing on celebrity drama instead of focusing on God,” says the CYO camp’s assistant director. “There are a lot of similarities in how they teach their faith.”

The interaction with the Catholic staff members was also valuable for the Muslim campers who came from as far away as Florida, Texas, California and Canada.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to learn we aren’t different,” says Siddiqui, who is 23. “One of the passages in the Quran [the central religious text of Islam] is that God has created mankind simply to get to know one another. And from that, to build bridges.

“One of our first sessions was about family, and what it means to be family. We started by talking about mother, father, brothers and sisters. Then we branch out to our extended family. And we branch out further to all our Muslim brothers and sisters. The last thing we want to bring home is that we’re all family. People of other faiths are our brothers and sisters as much as our Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we can think like that, we can’t truly consider ourselves to be strong Muslims.”

‘Be proud of who we are’

The Muslim youth camp at Rancho Framasa also served the same purpose that the recent World Youth Day in Poland did for many Catholic youths, especially those who come from schools and communities where Catholics are in the minority.

For a week in their respective situations, Catholic youths and Muslim youths were surrounded by people who share their faiths, who want to live their faith.

Hossain recalls the impact that had on her when she first attended a Muslim youth camp when she was 13.

“I remember when we stood up to pray, and I realized other people took an initiative for their faith at a young age,” recalls the camp’s co-adviser. “Most of my friends at home didn’t do that. I found value in that and wanted to get involved.”

Siddiqui nods and adds, “We want to instill in them to be proud of who they are. Living in America in the 21st century, it’s not easy being a Muslim. There’s a lot that’s said in the media. For this camp, we just want to show who we are, be ourselves and be proud of who we are—and let that speak for itself.”

The weeklong camp also stressed leadership experience and confidence building.

To help the Muslim youth camp achieve its goals, the CYO staff adapted to the Muslim organization’s required approach for campers to do activities in all-male and all-female groups—except while eating meals and listening to speakers.

At times, that approach led to adjustments to the camp’s venues. Because of the modesty requirements for females of the Muslim faith, a black tarp was extended around the fence of the swimming pool when the girls swam.

Better understanding between two faiths

The single-gender approach to camping activities was an eye-opening experience for Kevin Sullivan, the CYO camp’s co-director who served as a lifeguard for the Muslim boys when they swam in the pool and at the lake.

“To my surprise, there was something different about the kids,” he says. “What I came to realize was the single-gender programing was really the difference. No one was showing off or putting on airs with anyone else. They were just being themselves, and it made a difference in how they played and how they spoke to me and to each other. I enjoyed my time with them.”

That sentiment expressed the overall experience between the members of the two faiths.

“It’s been awesome,” Hossain says.

“They’ve been able to be together and celebrate their faith in a safe environment,” says Taube, the CYO camp’s assistant director. “And it’s been really awesome seeing our young college staff get to know the campers and their counselors. They let us ask anything we wanted.

“I don’t think there are a lot of opportunities where Christian Americans get to ask questions of Muslim Americans to better understand their religion—and to know the conversation is one of interest and trust. It worked both ways, with them asking questions about ‘The Great Amen!’ They’ve had a lot of fun together, and a lot of conversations about their faiths.” †

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