EMU Cross-Cultural

Hike to border wall, Mexico

Exploring immigration on the border lands

20 January 2015

Isaac at El ComedorOur group arrived in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th shortly after midnight, and we spent several days in a hotel there while beginning our study of immigration issues at the US/Mexico border. Our first activity on the morning of the 8th was crossing the border to visit El Comedor (a soup kitchen just across the border in Nogales, for newly deported migrants). We also heard migration stories from several women being protected in a woman’s shelter there in Nogales. For being our first day, it was flooded with a lot of emotional heaviness.

The next few days included visits to two different detention centers in Arizona, where a few of us got to speak with the detainees, a beautiful hike in Saguaro national park AZ sunset(where the biggest challenge was avoiding the Jumping Cholla cactus), and some much-needed relaxation time at the hotel. Sunday morning after church and lunch with members of the humanitarian project “No More Deaths”, we set out for Agua Prieta, where we spent a week in a community center just a short distance from the wall, which we visited several times. We experienced shopping on a maquila (factory) worker’s salary and cooking dinner and breakfast together, visited a drug rehabilitation community, heard from several passionate speakers on border issues, and participated in a vigil for those who have died crossing the desert in Cochise County. We visited a border patrol facility at the end of the week and heard their perspective as well. Our time at the border included a lot of U-turns, bathroom stops, and Spanglish as our group starts to get to know each other and figure out the sometimes chaotic schedule of each day together.

The biggest lesson I have learned this week is that I have grown up with an immense amount of physical comfort, and that what I have to go back to in the US is a privilege. I’ve never been out of the country before, and having a toilet that flushes every time and a sink I can drink and wash my hands from are things I’ve taken for granted for the last twenty years. I’ve also been privileged to live my whole life in the safety of Harrisonburg, and this week my sense of security has been challenged, too. Early Wednesday morning, a couple of us woke up to [what sounded like] machine gun fire nearby, and I had trouble falling back asleep, even though Agua Prieta is pretty safe during the day.

I’ve definitely been appreciating all of the prayers and support being sent our way. We will be heading to Guatemala mid-week to begin the next part of our trip, and I think we’re all looking forward to meeting our host families and developing a more steady and relaxing routine there.

-Kari King

Sunset over the Dead Sea

Into the desert

19 January 2015

Marhaban – Hello from the Middle East 2015 group! This week has been a whirlwind of new sights and experiences, smells and sounds. From the Bedouins calling out to us, encouraging us to buy their wares, to the enticing dishes at each meal, we have arrived in a new world. Over the next semester, different students will have the chance to share their thoughts on this blog- we hope you enjoy our words, and thank you all so much for your support!


“Our two days in Wadi Rum (Jordan) are hard to describe in words, but I’ll do my best. After arriving at the visitors’ center, I thought we were close to the camp. However, to our surprise, we got to ride jeeps the last hour of the trip. In the back of pickup trucks, we drove through the open desert until we finally reached the Bedouin camp. Our hosts were unbelievable. They provided food, fire, and plenty of entertainment, which included music and dancing with the locals. It was so nice to sit in the tents, around the fire, and to sit and enjoy each other’s company– no wifi, no phones, only conversations, laughs, and plenty of stories and stargazing.

On Saturday, we woke up in our tents with the excitement of getting to ride camels. We rode through the desert for about three hours on our camels. Even though they weren’t the most IMG_0002Rcomfortable, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The Bedouins were so hospitable, offering us tea, fire and friendship the whole stay. What an unbelievable and unforgettable couple of days.”

-Ruthie Beck, Junior, History Ed.


13 November 2014

She stomped onto the bus, long, loose red curls swinging from side to side, framing her weathered face. With a gruff expression, she brought us to attention with a shout of “hello.” She leaned against the side of a seat, resting momentarily. After gathering herself, she stood up straighter, emboldened, and shouted forth what information she deemed critical for us to know: “let’s get one thing straight: I am not a missionary, so don’t call me that.”

This proclamation was bold, and instantaneously, I loved this woman.

Despite her disassociation with the term “missionary” the work Sylvia devotes herself to is bringing forward the kingdom of God. She moved to Bulgaria and has loved and been loved by the people for the duration of her time here. She is an anomaly: after her organization failed to provide her adequate funds, the Bulgarians supplemented her salary and supported her. This is completely unheard of and testifies to her work ethic and cultural sensitivity. Currently, she is working at one of the few Syrian refugee camps. For two days, she briefly allowed us into her world.

When we first entered the camp, everyone was forced to acknowledge a spirit of despair that permeated our beings. Our surroundings reinforced what we felt intuitively: the sky was dark, full of foreboding clouds, our feet sank into the soggy ground, and the land was stacked with rows and rows of temporary housing. The air was slightly damp and I noticed how quickly my fingers and toes seemed to turn to ice.

We stood at the gate, freezing, gaping at our surroundings for what felt like an eternity. Finally, our group was herded into another building to meet with the camp director. The residents at the camp had been informed that a group of Americans were coming and had formed a large group, waiting to see us. We marched through the clump of people, holding one another close. I looked up occasionally, stealing glances that I had been warned against. My eyes met blank faces of young men, older men, children, mothers. I remember the collective large, dark eyes. They did not look at me expectantly nor defensively, I was merely being observed and I have never felt more vulnerable.

I found myself ushered into a classroom reserved for the camp administration. The room had buzzing fluorescent lights, gleaming desks, and our muddy shoes squeaked as we trod over shining linoleum tiles. Enticed by the prospect of a view, I wandered toward the window. Looking out, I saw the large group of residents slowly making their way back into the grid of temporary housing, smoke billowing up from trash fires; I saw the wall that separated the camp from the city. On the horizon, I could see the outlines of communist block buildings. All I could see was oppression– current and historical traumas. And none of it felt real.

The week before, our group was exploring the city of Veliknovo, Turnovo. While in Turnovo, we had the opportunity to meet with several different men who shared ideas and perspective with us at the university. I felt particularly impacted by Marian’s discussion. He adamantly insisted that humanity is at its best when it is engaging in relationship.

As Westerners, we can find ourselves wrapped up in our individuality – thinking only of ourselves in a cyclic and destructive way. After establishing the prominence of this tendency, Marian asked us, in the most gentle and unassuming way, “what is the cost to love?” Our simple answer was a whispered response of, “nothing.” Marian continued, and telling us of the beauty that abounds when we break out of these cyclic mentalities. The most basic reward of relationship is to have the eyes of another, acting as mirrors for us to see ourselves. As we engage further, synergy of people and energy is produced. We learn how to give and be given to. The synergy molds us, changing us for the better.

I could not escape Marian’s words that day in the camp. I could not escape the vacant stares. I was nervous to engage with the residents.

Our group was organized into two before we left the classroom. A handful of us assembled groups of shoes to be dispersed to family groups. The rest of us spent the day slushing through mud, dragging metal bed frames from one building to the next, then assembling the beds.

Initially, we were watched as we carried the bed frames from building to building. The residents were curious about us, but withdrawn. An hour into the process, several young boys had enough of simply observing us. They joined in, happily running through the mud, meeting us as we emerged out of one building, taking the bed frames from our loaded arms, carrying the weight themselves. The boys were ecstatic — invigorated by the work and the opportunity to simply do. Each time they met me with expectant, outreached arms, eager to shoulder the burden of the heavy metal frames.

The next day, our group organized games and activities for the children in the camp. We found ourselves in a similar classroom as the day before, one that felt completely surreal and entirely unused. We threw down crayons, markers, face paint, balloons, and candies onto the shiny, unblemished desks. Children and mothers flooded in, and in moments, the room was transformed. The room, once stale, now housed squealing children, proud mothers, and all of the resultant joyful noise. I thought of the synergy that Marian spoke so passionately of — here, I could see it blooming.

For the hour, I painted faces of the residents. I was given the opportunity to give all of my attention to each child in the seat right in front of me. I tried to give safety and affirmation to each person as I traced simple hearts onto pure cheeks. The smiles I received in return made me swell with affection. I will cherish those exchanges for the rest of my life.

Throughout, I considered the paradigm shift that I experienced. I moved from fearfully stealing glances and seeing vacant stares to learning how to maintain meaningful eye contact. Before establishing relationship with the residents, I hated my reflection in their eyes. In that mirror, I saw my privilege and felt nothing but guilt. As the relationship evolved, so did the reflection. I began to appreciate the ways that I could give and be given to. I hope that my eyes mirrored back the beauty that I saw, the resilience, the hope.

I will also never forget Sylvia’s initial greeting: she does not proclaim to be the sole giver. She engages in relationship. She stands beside the hurting. She makes room for synergy by not claiming superiority. She is not found in vacant classrooms — she will be found trekking through the mud, delivering shoes, exchanging smiles, giving meaningful squeezes. Within Sylvia’s synergistic relationships, she is constantly moving, constantly changing, constantly learning. She is constantly giving, constantly engaging in relationship, constantly learning how to love more fully.

-Hanna Heishman

Photo - C. Schlabach

Lithuania 2014

Kenya students 14

Kenya: Summer 2014

Hah Jambo (hello) from Kenya!

We have had quite the busy week and a half. We have been experiencing so many things not only about the Kenyan culture but also about ourselves. Last week when we arrived we toured Nairobi and all the ladies bought a Kanga to wear when we are doing one of our projects. We have planted trees to help offset the carbon emissions that we will produce with the total air miles we are accumulating. Our tree planting experience was an interesting one in the fact that none of us really expected to only plant a couple trees each. At the place that we were staying for this we had a tour guide named Mark, who is working on biodiversity and is in my opinion the Albert Einstein of trees and plants. I found the experience a very humorous one and our first real look at how Kenyan people normally don’t go from point A to point B in finding a solution but going around in a circle until an answer or conclusion is reached. Continue reading

Cadiz Plaza Espana

Cadiz, Spain: Summer 2014

The Ups and Downs of Puebla

After leaving the hustle of Mexico City, we were pleasantly welcomed by the more relaxed atmosphere in Puebla. As soon as we arrived at the Spanish Institute of Puebla, we had a brief orientation to the Institute, then if was off to our new host families. In contrast to our host families in Guatemala, we were 2 or 3 students to a family. This helped to ease the transition, and took some pressure off of our Spanish skills.

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Jerusalem and the Galilee

13445984425_d85ca739c2_zAfter a week of various independent travel experiences, all 30 members of our cross cultural made our way back to Jerusalem. Coming back to a now familiar city almost feels like returning home after a semester of almost never returning to a place twice. However, this week we had the new opportunity of lodging in the historic Ecce Homo Convent in the Old City. The ancient Roman road of the Via Dolorosa, the road that Jesus walked on to his crucifixion, runs through the basement of the convent, the victory arch made by Hadrian is built into the chapel, and the roof has a beautiful view of the Dome of the Rock. There really is nothing comparable to living in the heart of the Old City of one-of-a-kind Jerusalem.

Our focus for the week was learning more about Judaism, studying a bit of Hebrew, and of course visiting some more of the countless historical and Biblical sites in Jerusalem. This was the first time that Janet and Linford sent us off on quite a bit of independent exploration in the city. As great as our group is, it’s also nice not having to maneuver through crowded marketplaces with a group of 30 people. Some of the highlights of these explorations include walking the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, 13445808283_09fdcb405c_zvisiting the Garden Tomb, walking on top of the walls of the Old City, and finally getting a chance to visit the Temple Mount after waiting in an impressively long line. Also, throughout the week we had about 9 hours of Hebrew lessons from out amazing teacher, Sarah. She taught us the entire Hebrew alphabet, quite a few words, and lots of songs, which have been stuck in many of our heads ever since. One of our more somber afternoons in Jerusalem was spent visiting the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. While this wasn’t the most energetic of days, this museum definitely helped us to better understand the past of many Jewish Israelis in a meaningful way.

Eventually (March 23rd to be exact), the time came for us to leave Jerusalem, the city that became many of our group members’ favorite city on the trip so far. We headed back out to the Galilee, where we had briefly visited with JUC already, but this time came to stay at a kibbutz in Hannaton. A kibbutz is an agriculturally based intentional community. Some have completely shared resources among members, while others like ours have more independent families. This week in the Galilee region was planned and led by our guide Lori, a Jewish American who immigrated to Israel just a few years ago. Our schedule included a wide variety of lectures and “mifgashim” (face to face interactions) with everyone from Israeli college professors to descendants of Holocaust survivors, to soldiers fulfilling their 2-3 years of service in the Israeli army. These “mifgashim” were some of the highlights for me personally. Israeli young adults are some of the most articulate people I’ve ever met, and I learned so much about their individual beliefs as well as the beliefs of Israelis as a whole. And I think that all of us in the group have gotten pretty good at explaining both the purpose of our trip as well as who Mennonites are, after having to explain these so many times.

Our week in the Galilee ended with a free day to explore the coast city of Akko before we headed to our next and final location in Israel, the town of Nazareth. This semester has kept us moving right along through locations and information, and even so, we are still just skimming the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning everything about this fascinating part of the world.

-Melissa Jantzi

Independent Travel

April 5, 2014

Spring break came a week later for those of us across the pond, but it brought the same feelings of joy and freedom.  After completing an intensive course in biblical history at Jerusalem University College, we appreciated the week of independent travel. Small groups of travelers departed Jerusalem for Tel Aviv, Eilat, the Galilee, Bulgaria, and Turkey without the leadership of our faithful professors Linford and Janet.

Ind.travel in front of Hagia SophiaFor the group who went to Turkey, we were met with yet another new culture in our adventurous semester.  While I enjoyed Israel, it was nice to see something fresh. We landed in Istanbul and spent most of our time in the Sultanahmet area with the most famous sites the city has to offer.  The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia loomed nearby and captured our attention throughout the week. A rainy afternoon was a good time to explore the grounds of the Topkapi Palace which included numerous exhibits of Ottoman artifacts. Finally, the Grand Bazaar provided plenty to do in between. We carefully navigated the scores of shops, hunting for the best possible bargains. In all of these experiences, I felt the rush of adrenaline that comes with witnessing the magnificent.

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