Imagine seeing the most well-known and most fought-over land in the world, walking in the footsteps of Jesus and His disciples; tack on to that learning about one of the oldest conflicts in the world. Throw in 25 college students/volunteer Young Life leaders from James Madison University, and you have the trip of a lifetime.
The trip was the brainchild of our Area Director, Pete Hardesty. He had a vision for our local leadership team. Having spent two weeks in Israel last summer, Pete wanted to share the experience with the rest of us, in order to profoundly impact both our lives and our faiths. After an arduous process of fund-raising and planning, we were set to go.
Our first stop, before heading into the heart of Israel, was the West Bank. In order to raise money for the trip, we had committed and arranged to complete a five-day service project at Bethlehem Bible College. While our seven-day tour of Israel had a detailed itinerary, our time in Bethlehem was unknown. All I knew was to serve and help the college for the next week.
Our time there passed like a blur. I can still see the bullet holes in the door that led onto the college roof, the pile of burned trash sitting next to the curb at the refugee camp across the street, the college students singing praise music in Arabic at chapel, the smiles of the Palestinian kids while we struggled to communicate with them and walking the streets of Bethlehem at midnight, feeling safer here than in Philadelphia. I remember the Arabic dance music blaring out of the speakers at the Palestinian wedding we went to—the simplicity of life, and the beautiful spirit of a neglected people.
During our time there, members of our group split time going out into schools and shelters, entertaining students, orphans and the mentally disabled. We worked at the Bible college, doing repairs and cleaning work for the staff. Others worked in the community as well, doing arts and crafts instead of putting on a show.
We left Bethlehem with a new love for Palestinians and Arabs alike. The head of the Bible college, Birshara Awad, gave us a lecture on the history of the college, as well as some background on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Another day saw a lecture on the organization Mushala and their reconciliation efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. But it was time to move on, and follow in the footsteps of the faith that brought us here.
If the time in Bethlehem was a blur, the tour around Israel was a whirlwind, a land that possessed some of the world’s most famous and well-known sites. We drove up the west coast and stopped at Caesarea by the Sea. We saw Meggido, the site of the last battle in Armaggedon. We spent an afternoon in Nazareth at a YMCA that had set up a mini-village of Nazareth from Jesus’ time before arriving at our destination by the Sea of Galilee.
The next day was literally worth the entire trip. After breakfast, we were taken out on a boat for a ride across the sea. Words cannot describe what that was like, as I tried to imagine being one of Jesus’ disciples as they watched Him calm the storm. Across the sea our bus met up with us again, taking us to our next destination: the Mountain of the Beatitudes. There we learned of the natural amphitheater that existed nearby where Jesus was likely to have said those famous words. A few of the guys on our trip had memorized the entire sermon and delivered it to us while sitting on the side of the mountain.
Next stop that day was the Church of the Multiplication, where Jesus fed the 5,000. The town of Capernaum was next, and if the day couldn’t get any more surreal, most of our group was baptized in the Jordan River.
The trip continued like this, as we made a loop around the country, stopping at different historical sites. After Galilee, we spent a night at the Dead Sea. After floating in that mysterious body of water, we saw the caves near En Gedi where David hid from Saul, the legendary palace of Herod at Mossada and finally Qumran, where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jerusalem was next. Our last leg of the journey.
The ancient city of Jerusalem is one of the most fascinating places in the world. The locations I saw can hardly be matched any place in the world: the Pools of Bethesda, the Garden Tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Upper Room, the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On one day our tour guide estimated walking over 11 miles!
To go to the Holy Land is one thing in itself. But to experience it with people my age was unbelievable. Not to mention learning about and seeing up close and personal the results of the Arab-Israeli tension. For the rest of my life, I will never forgot those two weeks in May of 2007.