Art for Peace

Date Posted: 
Monday, January 25, 2016

[Photos by Scott Engelsman and Tanner Bosma]

Can a painting stop violence? Can it instill hope?

It’s late, and the streets of Beit Sahour are dark, but the Palestinian children don’t mind.

They are laughing and beaming and pointing at buildings: “There’s the car dealership!” “There’s the gas station!” “There’s where my uncle lives!”

They walk through their city, showing it off to their visitors from North America. Their tour takes them into their own church, where the priest is preparing for a wedding. From the balcony, the children start pointing again: “Here’s where we do the baptisms!” “Here’s the painting on the walls!”

The priest calls up to them, “Are you happy?”

“Yes! We are happy!” they call back. A boy turns to one of his guests, looks her in the eye, and says, “We are happy because we are with you.”

Despite their happiness on this evening, life is difficult for the students of Shepherds’ Field School in Beit Sahour, in the West Bank.

“Eight out of ten kids have PTSD,” says Scott Engelsman, RCA coordinator and facilitator for Global Mission development and engagement. These Palestinian Christian students have lost friends and family members to the ongoing violence in the Middle East. In some cases, they’ve even witnessed those deaths.

“These kids aren’t hungry for food,” says Engelsman. “They’re hungry for childhood.”

Unlikely peace work

So what can North American Christians do to give Palestinian students a childhood?

This is where Joel Schoon-Tanis comes in. Schoon-Tanis is an artist whose work shouts childhood. He describes his work as “full of color, whimsy and honesty. My goal is to help others unlock a sense of childlike wonder about God’s world.”

Last year, Schoon-Tanis, along with Engelsman and the ministers at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan—the church where Schoon-Tanis is artist-in-residence—dreamed up an arts camp. They imagined teaching Palestinian students to paint, dance, make music, and create three-dimensional art.

Over the summer, that dream became a reality. They rounded up a group from Fellowship, joined forces with a few other artists, and put on an arts camp through the Peace Project, a joint effort between the RCA and World Vision in the Middle East. Seventeen North Americans traveled to Shepherds’ Field School in July to host a four-day arts workshop for elementary, middle, and high school students.

“We had no grand visions of bringing peace,” says Engelsman. “[But] for a week, they got to be kids.”

Swapping cultures

During the workshops, the students split into four groups, each led by the people from Fellowship, the artists, and a few teachers from Shepherds’ Field.

Visual art was mostly new to the students. Because art supplies like paints are prohibitively expensive in the West Bank, Schoon-Tanis says, many of the students have not had the chance to learn to draw or paint. Music and dance, though, are part of Palestinian culture.

“There are always funny things when you’re trying to bring something in, but also not be the know-it-alls,” he says. “There’s some really good collaborative things that happened, especially with the movement and music...The visual arts became about giving kids new experiences, [while] music and movement were a cultural exchange.”

That cultural exchange showed up throughout the week. In the dance workshop, for instance, the North Americans taught the Palestinian students the slow, deliberate movements of modern dance. In return, the students demonstrated dabke, a communal folk dance with lively footwork.

Over the course of the camp, the group developed a performance piece that involved both forms of dance. The students posed in tableaus—essentially frozen scenes—and used dance to move from one tableau to the next. The piece illustrated the life of Jesus, with scenes for his birth, his crucifixion and resurrection, and his coming again. The group used the slower modern dance between the first few scenes. But to depict the joy of Jesus’ coming again, the students turned to dabke, linking arms and flinging themselves in wild circles.

Meanwhile, Schoon-Tanis invited the whole group to make their mark on a single painting. The painting was a riff on a theme he often returns to in his art: the peaceful kingdom. He created the basic form, and then groups of students crowded in, elbow to elbow, to fill it in with vibrant paints. By the end of the week, flowers and trees sprouted from the canvas, a child led a parade of wild animals, and a lion and lamb kept each other company.

Getting—and staying—connected

Collaboration on a dance or a painting might seem insignificant among other peacemaking efforts, but it represents larger possibilities for connecting people.

“Art is so versatile,” says Tanner Bosma, a member at Fellowship who helped lead the dance workshop. “It’s like a language in itself. Whether you speak English or a different language, it’s a connection you can have with other kids…You don’t have to speak English to understand that that’s peace and [the lion and lamb] are laying together.”

The connections extended beyond painting together. Bosma’s age—he’s a college freshman—allowed him to get to know the students as friends and peers. He recalls his interactions with one student, Reme: “She always came in very excited, always smiling, always greeted me with a handshake and by my name…She was the best young tour guide ever, with her genuine joy for where she lived and our religion, the pride of her church, how she was so excited about little things.”

They’ve continued to stay in touch. “She was someone who said, ‘Make sure you Facebook me!’ When I uploaded a picture on Instagram, she [wrote], ‘I miss you guys!’”

Bosma has been affected by the Beit Sahour students at a deeper level, too. “I also saw [God] in their stories, how they face things that I can’t even comprehend,” he says. “They’re still so faithful and hopeful…Through their happiness I wanted to come back [home] being more happy, more compassionate, [and] not get stuck in the drama of teenage life.”

“A thing to talk about”

As is true for a growing number of RCA mission experiences, the outcomes from the arts camp aren’t easily quantifiable. On a trip like this, you can’t count the number of homes repaired or the amount of food distributed. Nor can you tally the lives committed to Christ, because the students are already Christians.

But the impact of an arts camp is tangible.

“Art gives you an object or a song or poem—pick your art form—that gives you a thing to talk about,” says Schoon-Tanis. “By talking about the thing, it gives you a bouncing-off place so you’re not instantly political.”

An object, he says, also stretches the amount of time people back home are willing to hear about the trip. Without an object, people might give you 15 seconds of their time, “but if you have a thing to show, a song to share, you might get a few more minutes—increase the [trip’s] exposure. It can provide a spotlight on the Peace Project or the people [in the West Bank].”

Schoon-Tanis has plans for another arts camp next summer that will include an even greater cultural exchange piece: “Because I saw music as such a strength,” he says, “we’ll bring some songwriters, work with musicians there, record those songs, and now you have an object—a song that can be shared in our churches. That’s exciting: taking two different cultural music approaches and mashing them together.” (See sidebar above right to learn more about the 2016 trip.)

A spotlight, a song, an exchange, a childhood—when art provides these, it can play a part in bringing about peace in the Middle East.

It can also provide hope.

“If you’ve lived there long enough, it’s easy to lose hope,” says Schoon-Tanis. “But if you get to the youth, you can still instill some hope.”

Support the work of the Peace Project at www.rca.org/peaceproject.

Pray for peace, hope, and joy for the students living in Beit Sahour.

Apply to help lead this year’s camp by emailing volunteer@rca.org

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