As the 35 youth at Camp Brotherhood entered the chapel Tuesday, the laughing, shouting and talking fell to a low murmur.
Some took off their shoes as they entered the worship space to see three chest-high, wooden pedestals set up in front of the altar. One held the Bible, one the Torah, and one the Quran.
The Rev. William Treacy, Camp Brotherhood’s co-founder and chaplain, introduced the books to the group and invited each person to look through them while the Rev. Heidi Fish, executive director, chanted “hallelujah.”
“This is the vision we had 40 years ago,” Treacy said of the facility east of Conway, Wash., between Seattle and Bellingham. “It’s a vision that took 40 years to get going.”
That vision turned into the 2009 Interfaith Youth Summit, a gathering of young adults ages 12 to 17 from many different faiths. Among the 35 youth were Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, Jews and Christians.
The teens spent the weekend meeting in groups to talk about their faiths, but most importantly to listen and learn about other beliefs. At a campfire Tuesday evening, the teens burned pieces of paper on which they had written stereotypes and assumptions about their religions.
The summit’s facilitator, Julie Hanson, 44, of Edmonds, said it was challenging to bring up the stereotypes, but the teens trusted one another.
“We’re going to bring these questions up, but they’re not being said with hatred,” Hanson said.
Treacy, 90, said he’d hoped for such a gathering since he and Rabbi Raphael Levine first envisioned the camp in 1966 and conceived Camp Brotherhood. Now Treacy is seeing the idea in action.
“It’s one of the best programs we’ve had in Camp Brotherhood,” Treacy said.
The story of how Treacy and Levine turned a dairy farm east of Conway into Camp Brotherhood almost sounds like the start of a joke: A priest and a rabbi walked into a television studio.
Levine persuaded KOMO TV in Seattle to air a weekly program called “Challenge” in which he, Treacy and a Protestant pastor talked about faith, religion and current events in an open, round-table format. The program aimed to ease religious tensions as the country elected its first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. The show aired from 1960 to 1974.
Midway through, the group decided to create a place where young Christians, Muslims and Jews could get together and learn about one another in a nonconfrontational setting.
“It was just a culmination of my whole priesthood,” Treacy said. “I consider it part of my ministry.”
In 1968, when the first building at Camp Brotherhood was constructed, the idea flopped. The religious community was uninterested.
“Jews and Christians and Muslims getting together? People thought it was a cult,” Treacy said. “They could not believe it was a reality.”
‘A cultural maturation’
Fish, the camp’s executive director and an ordained Lutheran pastor, said the camp has been misunderstood for much of its existence and often confused with a nearby naturalist community.
“People don’t know what we are,” Fish said. “… We’ve had people think we’re a nudist club.”
Treacy said he was discouraged by the lack of interest in interfaith gatherings. Levine did not live long enough to see the youth summit in existence.
But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Treacy said, people were suddenly more aware of other nationalities and religions.
“There is a movement, a cultural maturation,” Treacy said. “You see it in racial relations, you see it in the election of (President Barack) Obama. There comes a time when people are ready for change. I think we’re nearing that now.”
Many of the teens at the summit met for the first time that weekend, and most had had little interaction with other faiths. But they bonded instantly.
“Right off the bat, it’s like everyone has known each other for five years,” said Iman Baghai, 14, of Seattle.
“And then all these ethnic stereotypes just crash.”