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Forum looks forward to Peace One Day

Stonington - A Muslim leader and a Congregational minister sat side by side on the floor of a classroom at Pine Point School Tuesday morning, surrounded by 15 middle-school students from across the region.

The minister, the Rev. David Good of Old Lyme, talked about his trips with people of different faiths to Jerusalem, where he asks those in his group to forgive him and other Christians' for actions that have hurt Jews, Muslims, African Americans, gays and others.

"The ultimate goal of asking for forgiveness is reconciliation. It's trying to bring us back together," he said.

With a copy of the Quran at his side, Mongi Dhaouadi, the executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, likened getting to know a Muslim to discovering a new plant.

"Explore it. Learn about it. See what benefits it has, but take the time to know this creature of God. In the same way, get to know a Muslim. Introduce yourself," he said, adding these things will alleviate a natural fear.

Good and Dhaouadi were among 40 speakers Tuesday during a day-long peace forum at Pine Point that was attended by about 150 students from 13 middle schools.

Called Peace One Day, it was designed to promote peace, whether in a classroom or in a country halfway across the globe.

Dhaouadi said one of the best ways to introduce yourself is to say "salaam" ("peace" in Arabic).

"You will get a smile. For them it's wonderful for someone to say that to them. It's the way we greet each other. It will immediately open doors," he said.

He said that when a woman stopped his daughter recently and wished her a happy Ramadan, he said it put a smile on his daughter's face.

"This woman took the time to do something very simple," he said. "My message to you is take the time to know someone different. A simple word like 'peace' or a smile will make a huge difference."

The day began with a sunrise ceremony with poetry, yoga and bagpipe music. It was followed by morning and afternoon sessions that featured presentations from more than 40 people ranging from a submarine commander, military chaplain and an Iraq policy expert to a conscientious objector, a Peace Corps volunteer and the youth group director for the Jewish Federation.

There also were programs involving art, peace songs, yoga and problem-solving as a group. The day ended with sunset and evening ceremonies that included music, dance and storytelling.

The students all wore T-shirts that featured a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it."

The students were divided up into groups that bore the names of famous peace activists, such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.

"It's just something that we see as pretty darn important," Pine Point's head of school Paul Geise said about the impetus for the event. "If you're trying to prepare kids for the next generation, peace is not a bad way to do it."

He said the issue of "How do we get along?" surrounds the world.

"And it starts on the playground," he said.

The speakers were praised by students and teachers.

"I think this is a good idea. It lets us see different perspectives and different cultures," said Mikaela Mahar, an eighth-grade student at St. Michael's School in Pawcatuck.

Betsy Hudson, the director of student services at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, said she loved the concept.

"It's a fantastic first step," she said. "Whoever conceived the idea for this did some very deep thinking."

In another classroom, Joanne Sheehan, the regional coordinator for the War Resisters League, discussed using non-violent ways to achieve peace and justice. She and the students talked about Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat that led to a boycott of the Montgomery, Ala., bus system.

"We have the power to withhold something if we don't like what's happening. One way we can oppose something is to say, 'We're not going to give you our money,'" she said. "See, we have the power."

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-18th District, talked about using discussion and compromise in the legislature as a tool to resolve conflict.

"It's really about finding common ground," he said.

Back in the classroom, Dhaouadi answered students' questions about head coverings worn by Muslim women, the Quran, the recent controversy over construction of an Islamic community center in New York City and the importance of letting Muslims in other countries know that most Americans do not oppose their religion or support actions such as Quran burning.

Good left the students with this phrase: "Blessed are the peacemakers because they will get up and do something."

"That puts the responsibility on us," he said.

Geise agreed and said that if those who participated Tuesday do not take steps to promote peace, then the forum was a failure.

"The whole idea is to start something," he said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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