By Susan Kim (*)
The story starts with Peter. Not biblical Peter, just a kid named Peter who's a little bit overweight, who has bumps on his face, and, oh, yeah – sometimes, he doesn't smell very good.
“Everybody knows a 'Peter,' right?” asks Dr Yanike Hanson, and 19 children nod an emphatic “yes.”
Hanson, an instructor within the Global Network of Religions for Children, is guiding Jamaican elementary schoolchildren through an exercise in peacemaking at the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) being held in Kingston, 17-25 May.
Participants at IEPC are gathered to discuss ways to help people worldwide work toward a just peace. The conference's themes include Peace in the Community, Peace with the Earth, Peace in the Marketplace and Peace among the Peoples.
“Peter is that boy that everybody avoids,” Hanson continues. “Almost always, he's in the cafeteria eating alone because nobody wants to sit beside him. Sometimes there are some little children who want to sit down beside of Peter but they are afraid of what the other children might say.”
Then she asks the children if someone will pretend to be Peter. A boy volunteers, sitting down in a folding chair, and the other 18 children promptly move away from him, some of them giggling.
“Now,” Hanson asks, “how would you feel if you were Peter?”
The children grow serious. Residents of Jamaica's poorest, most violence-ridden communities, they know all too well how “Peter” – even this imaginary one – feels.
Eleven-year-old Sophia thoughtfully raises her hand. “Kids make fun of me sometimes. If I were Peter, I'd feel very sad. Very unaccepted.”
The other children chime in, eager to answer: “Embarrassed.”
“I would wonder, why did God make me this way?”
Even as the children talk about their imaginary friend Peter, their adult counterparts at the IEPC were spending the day wrestling with the issues surrounding peace in the marketplace – the kind of global economic-related violence that leaves hundreds of people wondering: why did God make us this way?
Finally, the pretend Peter answers, his chin resting in his hands: “I'd feel awful. It just feels awful,” he said. “I'm kind of like Peter. I mean, I'm a little chubby.”
With a little guidance from Hanson, the children decide they'd like to try walking in Peter's shoes. They take paper footprints and tape them to the bottom of their own shoes. The footprints say, simply: “I am Peter.”
They walk around for a few minutes, not speaking, but just existing as Peter for a few minutes. Then Hanson asks them how they feel.
“Like I was a nobody.”
“Like I wasn't in the world.”
For children, talking about the universal and timeless outcasts like Peter is a way to get them to talk about peace in a world with entire countries that are outcasts.
The workshop Hanson is conducting has been used in Cuba and other countries to get children involved in active peacemaking. Working in tandem with the United Nations, the Global Network of Religions for Children uses a curriculum that focuses on four ethical values: respect, empathy, reconciliation and responsibility.
In the workshops, the children approach the unknowable question of why some people are always left out. With some leading questions from Hanson, they discover something they like about Jesus: he didn't leave anybody out.
Look at the lepers, Sabrina says. “Nobody wanted to go near those lepers but Jesus tried to help them.”
She and the other children wonder aloud why we blame someone for being different.
Vivette McCarthy, a mother attending the workshop with her daughter, raises both hands into the air: “You know, yeah! I mean, if you were born, say, with one arm shorter than the other, it's not any fault of yours.”
Which leads Hanson straight to her next activity: Moving into three groups, the children put large pieces of paper on the wall. They trace around one child's head, another's arm, another's legs, until entire bodies appear.
Then they write their wishes in the heads, their feelings in the heart, their needs in the stomach, and their “wants” in the feet.
Their wishes range from the wide-focused – “a better world,” “peace” and “love” – to the plaintive daily yearning “I wish I had friends.”
While two groups said the feelings in their stomachs were happy, one inexplicably elected to write “sad” in their figure's stomach.
Their needs: “salvation, “loved ones,” and, from one young girl, “to be more attractive.”
Hanson gazes around at the oddly-proportioned drawings, asking: “Are these bodies perfect?”
“No!” the children chorus, and then they gather happily back together for a closing hymn.
But the pretend Peter lingers for a moment at his body, on which he has drawn huge biceps. “Did you see what I wrote in the feet? I want to live long,” he said. “And I want to have fun.”
(*) Susan Kim is a freelance writer from Laurel, Maryland, United States.
High resolution photos of the event may be requested free of charge via photos.oikoumene.org