Group comes together in Minneapolis to promote peace

Representatives from nations around the globe gather near the University.

by Diane White

People of various ethnicities, ages and religions gathered in front of Territorial Hall on Tuesday morning to celebrate their differences.

They were participants in a two-week program called Ark, sponsored by Judy and Harry Maghakian of Andrew Riverside Presbyterian Church.

Harry Maghakian, the minister of the church, said through funds from individuals and foundations, his church is able to host international adult and youth leaders to focus on creating world peace.

“It’s an absolutely unbelievable experience Ö people of different races and religions talking together, eating together Ö hugging,” he said.

The participants are from Malawi, Lithuania, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Guatemala and the United States.

Their “Ark” T-shirts created a wave of red as they danced and sang to one another, symbolizing a start to their daily festivities.

However, one participant, 16-year-old Mohammad Kanso, from Lebanon, stood outside the group.

Kanso said his beliefs within the Muslim faith prohibit him from physical contact with women outside of his family. When he felt uncomfortable with a group activity, he stepped out.

“At first (the other Ark participants) didn’t understand me Ö (now) they’re respectful of my beliefs,” he said, adding the experience has strengthened his confidence.

Stacy Severson, an adult leader in the program, said there aren’t necessarily culture clashes, but learning takes place during the weeks of the program.

She also said most mornings start like Tuesday, with a community-building activity followed by workshop or classroom time.

“It’s a way to spiritually start the day,” Severson said.

Amani Kassis, 25, was another adult participant.

“We’re seeing other cultures,” she said, adding many of the participants here are used to one dominant culture back home.

George Faggoul, 16, said the program provides a way to see and experience other countries’ problems firsthand.

Though he thought business was good in the United States, he found cultural problems here were comparable to those in his home of Bethlehem, on Israel’s West Bank, with tensions stemming from religion and politics.

Judy Maghakian said each participant brings a different perspective, which makes the experience tailored to that individual.

“Everyone does their own thing and it’s highly respected,” she said. She added the program’s aim is “not pushing any religion but representing everyone.”

A good way to accomplish this goal is through the arts, Judy Maghakian said, which is where Laura Gentry comes in.

Gentry is a Lutheran pastor and artist from Northeast Iowa. She and her husband come and stay the two weeks in Territorial Hall with the other participants.

Besides directing work on an art piece shaped like a globe, Gentry said she is in the process of making a documentary film on the Ark program. It will focus specifically on the transformation that takes place when participants make bonds outside their own cultures.

“They would never meet otherwise,” she said, emphasizing the significance of the friendships made here within the program.

After the globe is complete it will sit near the site of the Maghakian’s former church, located at the corner of Fourth Street Southeast and Eighth Avenue Southeast.

One of the church’s walls collapsed several years ago, and now church members hold services at a rented space at the University’s YMCA.

This is the first Ark summit in Minneapolis, future summits are expected to be held in Bethlehem, Amman, Jordan and Geneva, Switzerland.