November 3, 2003

'Journeys' offer new perspectives

By Elizabeth Cloud

Each May, students journey to distant locales in an effort to connect with communities around the globe that are dealing with conflict and pain. By immersing themselves in unfamiliar situations of hardship, students make personal transformations, gaining depth, lasting understanding and respect for each other and for other cultures.

These "Journeys of Reconciliation" began in 1985 to promote relationships between Emory and communities with histories of violence and exploitation. The program existed first only at Oxford, but it has since grown to encompass both campuses and now operates under the Office of Religious Life.

The journeys have taken students and staff in the past to such faraway destinations as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Bolivia and Cuba, but this past summer the focus was on America. Students sought to uncover the meaning of America by traveling to the Texas/Mexico border, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and to Cheyenne and Crow reservations in Montana. In 2004 the destinations are Mexico, Bosnia and South Africa.

Tom Simpson, who coordinates the project, said the journeys Emory makes are not mission or service trips, but "opportunities to build lasting and trusting relationships with host communities."

"We go in not as self-proclaimed experts who have come to fix a problem, but to talk and to listen to what people have to say," Simpson said. "We are there to build relationships, and that often takes time."

In fact, next year's trip to South Africa will mark the fourth time that country has been visited since the program's inception; over the years program coordinators have developed a strong relationship with the South African host community. The other two destinations for the year, Mexico and Bosnia, will be first-time visits for the program, beginning a new cycle of relationship building.

"We select our destinations based on the contacts Emory has and plan trips accordingly," Simpson said. "We were able to plan the Bosnia trip this year because we have a third-year theology student who has done extensive reconciliation work with youth centers there, and from him we've learned a great deal and have been able to coordinate a great trip."

Ten to 15 students usually go on each trip, with two to four faculty and staff members accompanying them. The program is open to all students, not solely those interested in religion.

"We actively seek participates from all across the University--we want diversity and varying disciplines represented in each group," Simpson said.

All trips will be held May 12-26, 2004, immediately following the end of spring semester.

The focus of the Bosnia trip will be on the massive economic, health, environmental and social problems that have arisen since the community began its rebuilding process following the ethnic and religious war fought in the early 1990s. Participants will meet with government officials, community representatives and local leaders working to build peace and understanding among youth of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

The second new destination on the list is Mexico, where students will visit Mexico City and Oaxaca to explore the complexities of the country's cultures.

The program will focus on the connections between the affluent "American" lifestyle and the lifestyle of Mexican citizens whose labor often supports that affluence. Students will experience both the urban culture of Mexico City, and the rural scene of Oaxaca.

The final journey, to South Africa, will look at the post-apartheid community, focusing on education reform and the AIDS epidemic. It will involve trips to elementary schools, visits with both majority white and all-black church congregations, visits to universities, and talks with political leaders.

"Our hope is that by making these journeys, students will emerge as more thoughtful and caring citizens," Simpson said. "They come back with powerful images of poverty and desperation, but also with hope."

Simpson said he has seen the lasting effects such journeys have had on students. One who made the trip to Appalachia plans to write a children's book to help children in that region. Another who visited Montana last summer plans to return as an educator.

"The images students return with have lingering effects. They are not always easy to measure, but they're definitely there," he said.

The deadline to apply for the 2004 Journeys of Reconciliation is Nov. 14. Program costs range from $1,500 to $2,200 and are all-inclusive, covering airfare, accommodations and meals. Some forms of need-based financial aid are available. An information session will be held Wednesday, Nov. 5, in the Dobbs Center faculty dining room at 5:30 p.m. Staff and faculty spots have been filled, but interested undergraduate and graduate students should contact Tom Simpson (Emory) at 404-712-9102 or Judy Shema (Oxford) at 770-784-8392.