By Josh Raymer
Turn on your television and flip to the nightly news program of your choice. What do you see? Terrorism at home and abroad, refugees searching for a home, veiled racism directed at minority groups, accusations of hatred of bigotry… these are tumultuous times in which we live. It’s easy to watch the news or peruse social media and believe that our world is drifting away from common ground and back towards our respective comfort zones where it’s easier to make sense of the world around us.
Come to VAMPY and you’ll find an entirely different view of the world. Rather than running from other cultures or fearing the unknown, campers in Arabic and Humanities are opening themselves up to the world and finding that enlightenment and empowerment come from keeping an open mind to new experiences.
Louie Guerwane hopes that students in his Arabic class see a culture that is not too different from American life. People in Arabic counties love soccer, enjoy listening to music, and cherish time with their family and friends. “People in the Arabic culture are just like us,” Louie said. “They like to laugh. They like to celebrate life. There are bad people everywhere. We have to learn to celebrate the similarities.”
Many of our misconceptions of the Arabic world stem from a misunderstanding of Islam. Not only does Louie show the students that not all Arabic people are Muslims – there are actually millions of Arabic Christians – but he also uses documentaries to educate students on Islam and clear up some common misunderstandings of the religion.
Even for Jake Bowen of Ekron, who is taking Arabic at VAMPY for a second time, the films still made a big impact on his understanding. “Muslims are required by their religion to read the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran,” he shared. “Labeling them all as ‘infidel killers’ or ‘jihadists’ is wrong. They study other religions and take those beliefs into consideration. They don’t hate us and we shouldn’t hate them.”
Coming to a better understanding of other world religions is the focus of Humanities, which looks at the afterlife in different cultures and studies the books, art, governments, and religions that arise from our universal quest to know what happens after death. “One of the things we stress in this class is tolerance of other people’s beliefs,” Humanities teacher Tracy Inman said. “The first day of class, we talk about what each student personally believes happens to you after you die because everything will filter through those beliefs.”
Politics and religion might be taboo subjects at the dinner table or at the barbershop, but at VAMPY, the examination of one’s beliefs is considered instrumental to growth. This is the case regardless of whether students come to camp with already established beliefs, or no beliefs at all. “I don’t really have any religious beliefs as I never take the time to think about it,” explained Max Brelig of Bonnieville. “Pretty much everything in this class has been a huge learning experience for me.”
Martha Popescu of Hanson came to VAMPY with religious beliefs of her own and hasn’t seen her confidence in those beliefs rattled at all by learning about other faiths. If anything, it’s only reaffirmed what she believes. “For me, this class has been eye-opening,” she revealed. “Even though I study religions for academic team, I’ve never gone in-depth with them like we do in this class. It’s fascinating to see how cultures believe differently about the afterlife and God. It helps me put my beliefs in place because I know where my beliefs stand in relation to other religions.”
In order to immerse students in their study of other cultures and religions, both Arabic and Humanities took field trips that encouraged experiential learning. Humanities went to Saint Meinrad Archabbey, a Catholic monastery, in southern Indiana, and then visited three religious sites in Nashville: the Hindu Sri Ganesh Temple, the Islamic Center of Nashville, and the Jewish West End Synagogue.
“They especially loved the Hindu temple,” Tracy said of the students. “I think it’s because they’ve studied that religion less than the others. They were amazed to discover it’s a monotheistic religion and not polytheistic like is widely believed. In our discussion, one of the students mentioned how all the religions emphasize peace.”
That was a commonality that Martha recognized, as well. “In all the religions that we’ve studied, I’ve come to see that the true essence is centered around peace and love,” she said. “I think people should focus on these similarities given the times we find ourselves in, with the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Islamaphobia that Muslims experience on a daily basis. We must learn to accept each other’s religion and realize that love is a similarity shared between all religions. We need to find that love.”
Max shared his belief that all religions share another commonality – the question at their core. “I think we’re all looking for an answer with religion,” he said. “We all want to know what comes after life, and everything else just unfolds from there across the different religions.”
One important takeaway Tracy hopes her students remember is that culture and religion aren’t necessarily the same thing. “The lady who spoke to us at the mosque emphasized that we need to divorce religion from culture. Many people feel that Islam denigrates women, yet there are countries in the Islamic world where women are heads of state. The denigration you see comes from a cultural or political influence.”
Another misconception these classes clear up for students is the belief that Arabic people hate Americans. As Hollis learned during his field trip to an Arabic market, that statement couldn’t be further from the truth. “When we visited the Arabic food store, Jake and I wanted to buy some bread,” he recalled. “The lady working at the store with her family offered to make us a fresh batch when there was bread already sitting out on the shelf. I don’t think many other people would do that. Everyone at the store was so nice.”
When designing their classes, both Louie and Tracy committed to presenting the information and letting the students decide how they felt about it. “Knowledge doesn’t have to be true or false, right or wrong,” Louie commented. “These are just ideas. It’s good to learn as much as you can, and then people decide for themselves.”
VAMPY presents a crucial window into the lives of students as they grow and mature into young adults. If they’re ever going to learn the value of keeping an open mind to new cultures and religions, now is that time.
“This is such a formative age,” Tracy said. “Every place we visited, they talked about when students hit puberty they start becoming adults and make up their minds about being confirmed in the Catholic faith, or going through with a bat mitzvah. They’re all searching right now and trying to figure out their path.”
Martha recognized that as well. “We’re forming our identities and becoming adults in the real world,” she added. “This is a college-level course that exposes us to challenging literature. In the South, it can be hard to broaden your horizons, but when you come to a place like VAMPY where teachers like Mrs. Inman are ready to expose you to different cultures, it opens you up to a broader world outside your hometown, where you go to camp, or where you worship.”
But this exploration of the larger world isn’t just for the personal benefit of the students, as it’s only through education that these future leaders in society can make the world a better place. “As technology improves, the world is opening up,” Hollis explained. “Like it or not, you’re going to be exposed to so many different cultures. If you understand those cultures, it won’t be scary, and you won’t feel threatened. It just becomes daily life.”
“The more you know, the better you can understand the world,” Max said. “Don’t be complacent with what you have – always try to learn something new.”