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Tents draw attention to Darfurian refugees’ plight

UU congregations adopt 'Tents of Hope' project to raise consciousness about refugee crisis
By Rosalie Davis

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Mary Lou Holly plays a drum at Kent Heritage Festival

Mary Lou Holly (right) plays a drum in front of the tent pitched by the UU Church of Kent, Ohio, at the Kent Heritage Festival, to call attention to the plight of Darfurian refugees. (Ellen Carville-Ziemer)

It’s a symbol, a medium for a message, and at the end of the day, it’s still a shelter for those in need. Small wonder that the grassroots “Tents of Hope” project is proving a powerful way to draw attention to the plight of refugees in Darfur and energize people to take positive action to help.

At last count, participants in more than 300 American cities, including at least four Unitarian Universalist congregations, have purchased tents, which they are displaying to draw attention to the crisis. Some groups are then sending the tents to be used in Darfur. Begun by the United Church of Christ in 2007, Tents of Hope (TOH) is being promoted among UUs by the UU Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington Office for Advocacy. The program will culminate in a major demonstration calling for greater assistance for the refugees in Darfur on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the weekend of November 7–9, just after the U.S. presidential election.

Organizers have reserved space on the Mall for 500 tents decorated with images and messages, with a goal of representing 500 cities, said TOH regional and international liaison Bev Hoffman. “When the election is over,” he said, “this will be the first strong message that the new president receives.” At the end of the event, “Darfur Peace and Development” (a nonprofit, nonsectarian organization headquartered in D.C.) is going to take the lead in gathering up the tents and shipping them to Sudan, Hoffman said.

Since 2003, the humanitarian crisis in the western region of Sudan has claimed some 300,000 lives and displaced another 2.5 million people, according to a recent United Nations estimate. Darfur was also in the spotlight during the 2008 Summer Olympic games, which were held in Beijing; China has invested heavily in the Sudanese oil industry and also sells them arms, according to a recent story in the New York Times.

“UUSC decided to partner with Tents of Hope because it is a program for people of all ages and is a real community-building exercise,” said Kara Smith, campaign assistant for outreach and mobilization at the UU Service Committee, an independent international human rights organization. Tents of Hope was a perfect match for the UUSC’s existing “Drumbeats for Darfur” advocacy effort, Smith said.

The UUSC’s “Rights in Humanitarian Crises” program partners have been in Darfur for some time, Smith said, working toward “weaving a web of protection” around women and girls living in the camps--for example, providing ways of generating income within the camp, promoting the use of alternative fuels, training women to bring up and discuss problems with leaders, and providing patrols for when they have to leave the camp to gather firewood, when they may still be vulnerable to rape and violence.

Adam Gerhardstein, acting director of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy, said his office has chosen Darfur for its September “Action of the Month.” The broader Tents of Hope campaign includes participants in 15 foreign cities, according to Gerhardstein.

“Around the world, anywhere people have been displaced, you find tents,” said Claire Deroche, social justice coordinator at the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y. The tent is both a biblical and a current symbol—and a powerful one, said Deroche. “It draws you in, and then you are more open to hearing about people who need assistance. After the shock of how many have been killed and raped, the next issue that really resonates is the displacement,” she said. “In displacement, it is so hard to be safe. The tent really brings that point home.”

The TOH website offers specific instructions for making or buying tents, organizing activities, and painting the tents. They recommend using “images of hope, compassion, peace, and global solidarity,” and of course, being creative. Colorful butterflies, faces of Darfur, flowers, handprints, hearts, ladybugs, the peace symbol, sunbeams, and slogans like “LOVE,” “PEACE,” and “SAVE DARFUR” are common. The website urges participants to be sensitive about using religious symbols in the cross-cultural context of the program. They also give ideas for fundraising projects, including a program that recycles used cell phones.

The UUSC’s advocacy materials include a card that is designed to be sent to two influential congressional subcommittees. Even if you can’t put up a tent, said Smith, “constituents can write their legislators and ask them to support our work.” She said 20,000 of the folding postcards have been printed, 10,000 each for the Senate and the House of Representatives chairmen. About 36 UU congregations are involved in some way with a TOH activity, according to Dick Campbell, the UUSC’s media and public affairs coordinator.

Adults and youth from the UU Church of Kent, Ohio, made a tent and took it to a local heritage festival in early summer, as a stage for outreach. “It was a wonderful multi-generational collaborative,” said Diana Van Winkle, director of religious education. “About 30 people signed up to staff the tent and people of all ages participated. It was energizing and got people talking.” Some families in the Kent church are considering making the D.C. trip, she said.

The Rev. Melissa Carville-Ziemer, minister at the Kent church, said the UUSC supplied them with petitions to sign and send, advocacy postcards, informative literature, T-shirts, buttons, pins, and stickers with the UUSC’s "Drumbeats for Darfur" logo. On a separate table, they offered their own literature. "It was fun,” said Carville-Ziemer. “We knew it would be an opportunity to learn but we found real feelings of hope and pride in the possibility to do something active. One very outgoing person was actually calling people into the tent,” she said, while another member brought her drum. Said Carville-Ziemer, “She kept the drumbeat going."

“I love projects that are effective and have a symbolic dimension,” said Deroche. The Shelter Rock congregation’s involvement with TOH began with exploring a Darfur service program last fall. They started with an intergenerational Sunday worship service with teenagers in grades 10 to 12 who gave a dramatic reading and a history of the situation. Over the winter, youth groups, advisors, and other interested members began meeting and sharing ideas and soon discovered the Tents of Hope program. “We spent a lot of time becoming familiar with it,” said Deroche. “We were looking to involve parents and children (and anyone) who wanted to be involved.”

By May, the congregation was able to set up a tent outdoors and incorporate the program into its spring “bridging ceremony,” when children step up in the religious education program, said Deroche. An artist brought the paint, and people of all ages took a turn decorating and writing messages. The big white canvas tents sold by the Reliable Tent Co. (which offers a discount to participants) lend themselves to painting better than an ordinary camping tent made of colored nylon, Deroche said.

The tent was still up weeks later when the church hosted a regional conference for teenagers from the New York Metro District (which includes Connecticut and New Jersey). A workshop attended by at least 20 youth included a discussion about the UU response to the crisis and a showing of the film All About Darfur. Shelter Rock has planned an October event to bring in speakers, and hopes to take teenagers and chaperones to the big November rally in the nation’s capital. “We hope people will realize the importance of addressing this issue, come back and share, and keep the momentum going,” said Deroche.

Gerhardstein, as it happens, also serves as a youth leader at All Souls UU Church in D.C. His group plans on pitching “a really big tent, 16 x 20,” he said, “big enough to be used for a school in Darfur.”

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