A group of students in Cincinnati is imagining a new future—one not defined by religion, race, or nationality, but by understanding and connection.
In August, Kids4Peace brought together 25 students for its seventh edition of Interfaith Camp, a five-day, youth-led program for students in grades six through 12. Here, high school youth leaders and middle school campers who hailed different faiths—or none at all—had the chance to visit different places of worship, grow as leaders, and connect with people who they might have never met otherwise.
“The goal is to bring together kids of different backgrounds to help them be friends, or at the least help them to listen to one another, seek understanding, and build empathy,” said Adam Hayden, Senior Coordinator of U.S. Programs for Kids4Peace. “We also hope to inspire the kids to want to get more involved in creating more peace in the world.”
It seems to be working. Part of what makes Interfaith Harmony Camp unique is who leads it: A team of passionate high school leaders who themselves participated in the same programs just five or six years earlier.
“I loved what they were doing because I myself felt so accepted, and I wanted other people to feel that way as well. I wanted to carry it on,” said Shahnaz, a 17-year-old youth leader.
Each day featured a visit to a different center of worship: the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, Adath Israel Congregation, Congregation Beth Adam, Knox Presbyterian Church, and Cincinnati Bahá’í Faith Center. In addition to speaking with religious leaders and learning firsthand about their values and practices, the program offered activities focused on building connections, teamwork and listening skills, as well as giving participants the space to share their own experiences, grow as leaders, and challenge themselves.
“I have to be able to work through the discomfort, confront myself and ask why I believed a stereotype in order to create change for my community,” said Jaffa, another of the camp’s youth leaders.
Kids4Peace, which merged with Seeds of Peace in 2020, opened its Cincinnati chapter in 2016, bringing middle-school aged youth together through interfaith programming like the Interfaith Camp. For many participants, the camp was their first opportunity to meaningfully interact with people of different faiths—to sit in their centers of worship, talk with their leaders, and develop a more intimate understanding of what it means to be a part of that community.
“There was a lot of divide that I saw before that I don’t really see anymore because I went through camp,” Shahnaz said. “It broke down certain religious and cultural divisions—I don’t know how to explain it in words, but you’re not separated by your religions anymore. You’re just all people.”
Beyond each new skill they gained, each broadened understanding, the participants have made new, real connections. On the last day of camp, they seemed to be savoring the final moments—for nearly two-and-a-half hours after the program had ended.
“Every single person was engaged voluntarily,” Adam said. “They were taking pictures, exchanging numbers, laughing, playing games…It felt like everyone wanted to be there because they wanted to be with each other, and that’s what it’s all about.”