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Students travel through Israel and make deep connections

Passages program helps students connect with the Holy Land of past and present.

Note: This story was originally written in spring 2020

For many people the day after Christmas is a time to relax with family, play with new toys and eat as many leftovers as possible. For one group of Lipscomb students, the day after Christmas meant the start of a journey that would transform the way they looked at themselves and the world. 

On Dec. 26, 2019, around 40 students traveled to the Holy Land with Passages, an organization dedicated to helping American Christian college students encounter the landscape of their faith and meet the people who call it not just holy, but home.

Over the course of nine days they traveled throughout Israel to the locations of Biblical events like Jerusalem, Galilee, the Dead Sea, Nazareth and the Jordan River. They also visited the settings of geopolitical history like the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, the Holocaust museum and the West Bank barrier where they were able to connect with people on all sides of ongoing conflict and listen to their stories. 

The intention is to encompass both information and formation. As these Christian students from an array of majors who will end up in a wide variety of vocations walk through the Holy Land and listen to those who call it home, they make connections that run deep into history and wide into the modern world. 

Olivia Malham (’20), a May graduate in theology and ministry, said that a desire for a deeper connection was what drew her to participate in the Passages trip. She wanted to root the knowledge she had learned in her Lipscomb classes to the ground from which it had grown.

Classroom education can sometimes feel cold and impersonal, resulting in a disconnect, Malham said.

“This trip was a special opportunity to reconnect that knowledge with my faith and spirituality,” she said. “Being able to walk where Jesus did and see the landscape of the stories I grew up hearing was special. I had been feeling burnt out and spiritually dry and I needed this—it’s impossible to ignore that feeling of connection there. 

“I know God is not different in Israel than he is at home, I was just looking for him more there. I saw the connection between the time I give to God and how often I notice him,” she said. 

Yet it wasn’t just the Biblical connection that she needed. Her favorite part of the trip was learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from those who were living through it. 

On a visit to the wall that borders the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian man shared with them the difficulties of finding work, attaining food and water and how violence has impacted his life. 

“We talked to families on both sides, and I saw the depth and layers of how hard it is for everyone. We heard real stories, real emotions, real struggles. It opened my eyes to the complexity of it all and reminded me of the value of listening, being a peaceful presence and not jumping in with your own opinions all the time. It motivated me to do the same thing wherever I work in the future,” she said. 

Another May graduate, Madelyn Stevens (’20), majoring in English and Spanish, was hesitant to apply for the trip at first. 

“As an American I didn’t know how to go to the Middle East and say, ‘show me my culture as a Christian.’” So she talked with trip leader and Lipscomb Bible Associate Professor Walter Surdacki about how she could travel to Israel with respect and grace. Taking that posture, she discovered a deep interest in modern Jewish/Christian relations. 

“I loved listening to our Jewish tour guide and openly talking to each other about our ideas of God, Jesus and redemption,” she said. “But the moment that hit me the most deeply was when we stopped in a shop in Jerusalem. The owner, Solomon, thanked us for visiting, and I said he had a great store. But then he said, ‘no, thank you for coming to Israel. Tell the world about us.’” 

She purchased a necklace holder with the Jerusalem skyline from his shop and remembers Solomon and everyone in Israel when she sees it every morning. Since coming back Stevens has sought out opportunities to connect with her local Jewish neighbors at public speaking events and at a nearby synagogue. 

Remembering took on a new dimension for junior musical theater major Bennett Scott, as well. 

“My family has a Jewish background. My grandfather came over during the Holocaust. This trip was a way to get more contact with my heritage,” he said. 

Two experiences from those nine days really stood out to him. “Floating out into the Dead Sea was a beautiful moment,” he said. “But the most impactful, was seeing my non-Jewish friends on the trip go through the Holocaust museum. We all approached it with a mindset of learning and wanting to be open to the experience.” 

After the trip Scott reached out to Jewish groups in the area to keep that connection he felt in Israel alive with him in Nashville. 

“This was actually my third time going to Israel with Passages,” said Bailey Shafer, a senior graphic design major. 

After her first experience, she felt God calling her to forego studying abroad in Vienna to apply to the Passages Fellowship Program, which allowed her to return as a peer leader with first-time participants from King’s College. Then she signed up to travel to Israel again with the December 2019 team.

She was grateful for the relationship the group developed with their guides. “On past trips, a lot of the conversations were one-sided. Our guard was a Messianic Jew who was curious about faith practices in America and our tour guide was fascinated with evangelical Christians and asked us a lot of questions while sharing about his own culture” she said. “It was awesome to participate in Israel with people who were just as excited to connect as we were!” 

After three trips, Shafer has developed a deeper understanding of her faith, the practice of Sabbath and the rich connection between the people of Israel and their land. She said, “I care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now because I can see their faces. I know the stories of their humanity. It was easier to put it all in a box before and grow numb to the news, but having a personal connection with people and places makes it harder to be detached.”

“That’s what makes these trips with Passages so unique,” says Surdacki. “It’s not just seeing biblical sites, they are intentional about informing students about Israel’s geopolitical history. They give our students the chance to hear both Jewish and Palestinian voices so we can come back knowing the difficulty of peace with our hearts broken for both sides.”