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Learning from Geography

February 20, 2015

We’re in Jerusalem at last! The center and capital of Israel. A city that was fought over, over 2000 years ago and is still being fought over today. A walled stone city and a modern sprawling metropolis all in one. It is truly something you have to see for yourself to understand. Nonetheless, I will try to give you a small glimpse into our world as of late (since providing everyone who reads this blog a ticket to Israel would probably cost too much…)

While in Jerusalem we are staying and studying at Jerusalem University College. JUC is a small university (we’re talking 50 people max on campus) that offers a place for undergraduates to study abroad for a semester in Israel, or students to complete a master’s degree in Biblical Geography, Hebrew, or Current Affairs. We are taking a 2-week intensive Biblical Geography course. Many days we spend out in the field, leaving at 7a.m. and not returning until dinner. I should perhaps be more specific about what I mean when I say, “in the field.” Through this course we have the opportunity to travel all 16804993415_9ce706a072_kover Israel; we have “field days” in Jerusalem but also down to the Negev, out to the coast, and up to the Jezreel Valley, Galilee, and the Golan Heights, where we are learning about the events that happened in the location while we are at the location. The days we are not in the field we spend in the classroom, listening to lectures on topics we will be exploring in more depth in the field later.

It is exhausting. We’re traveling all the time. We are being thrown so much new information. But it is also so cool!

This course adds an entirely new perspective to my view of the Bible. It also adds to my general knowledge of things that I never knew I wanted to know. For example, we’ve learned about the three main types of limestone found in the Holy Land “and why it matters.” We have learned what a “tel” is, have stood on top of one too many, and if you ask us about it we’ll be happy to “tell” you all about them. We’ve had fun as well, doing things like swimming (or rather floating) in the Dead Sea, sitting on top of Mt. Carmel, singing on the banks of the Jordan River, standing on top of an extinct volcano looking out over Syria, and playing in the snow in the old city of Jerusalem.

We take buses to most of our destinations so we have ample time to think about what we have been seeing. Here are three things that have struck me especially this past week or so.
1) Israel is so small! Everything is so much closer together than I imagined it growing up. For example, you can walk from Jericho to Jerusalem in one day. You can also drive from Jerusalem to Nazareth in about 2 hours.
2) Israel is an extremely diverse country climate wise. If you wanted to, you could drive from the barren desert to rolling hills, harsh wilderness, wide valleys, flat farmland, Mediterranean coast, and humid forest all in one day.
3) My knowledge of the Old Testament is getting some serious refreshing and upgrading. It has been fun to relearn some of these stories from a new, and more physically and historically accurate, perspective.

– Sarah Sutter, third-year


“Context is everything,” the saying goes. And if our place of origin, 16705854342_5f2f846995_kour home, helps define us- then the context of that home is so much more than everything, isn’t it? Visiting the old city in Jerusalem today, it became so clear how the natural space we were in defined the physical place we were visiting. Simply put, it created the physical place we were in. Civilization upon civilization created the hills, just as much as the hills created the civilizations.

When I first heard we would walk across the Hinnom Valley, I imagined a day-long trek. But a quick trot up some stairs took us in and out of the valley, to view JUC from across that space. Building on top of, and around, previous cultures created a chaotic harmony of completely unique Jerusalem culture. Viewing that culture from the rooftop today was strange. Bizarre, even. Ruins melted into new construction. Local children dodged crowds of elderly tourists. Israeli soldiers fit into the spaces between Mennonite students.

Jerusalem – a culture all its own.

It definitely made me look with new perspective at where I come from- my location, my home base, my culture and context. In Oregon the sunlight seeps up from the ground, so I highly value the warm light of grass and moss. A horizon line of mountains means I need- yearn- for that feeling of being nestled within the slope of the land. Today I learned how the Holy Land has created Jerusalem- and how Oregon has created me.

– Bethany Chupp, sophomore

Riding camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Pictured: Isaac

Pig Brains & Fried Plantains

11 March 2015

Pig Brains & Fried Plantains


Roaming through the crypts, so ominous, so overbearing, we are greeted by the thickening of the dead. Trees tower above, providing shelter from the sun. Their leaves cast soft patterns against the crypts. I smell something fragrant. Broken glass from a crypt reveals the scent: bouquets of beauty reek of life. I see crows overhead…

We move past the brush into a clearing. Colorful scraps, broken glass, tattered cloth – really anything you could imagine – blankets the ground below. The crows loom greedily above and an overpowering scent fills my lungs – I try not to gag. Figures scurry among the sea of trash, searching for food or anything of value, while others are simply there to make a living. A little home is nestled among the scraps, secluded form the chaos, yet still so dependent…

How can something that resembles such death smell so fragrant? And how can something that gives and provides such life smell of death?


Clusters of brightly colored flowers are neatly parted to reveal a cobble stone path towards the door of the church. The church stands tall and white, while hundreds of us walk through its threshold, the sanctuary opening up before us. Wooden trellises and benches, candles, altars, and images of Jesus: some of these things I find foreign, others beautifully familiar. A few of us crowd onto a bench near the front. I am chilled by the cold air, but curious. A woman in front of me covers her head with a piece of brightly colored cloth. Urgent whispers of petition and reverence and gratitude come from behind. A man places burning candles in specific patterns with care. Many rituals, many minds, one purpose.


Fresh mangos and rooftop porches.

Stacks of colored houses surround the alleyway.

Opened window panes,

Breezes dance with curtains.

A church bell rings in the distance.

My father comes home from work, bringing stacks of warmed tortillas;

Mama turns up the radio.

I step outside to see the sunset.

Stained-glass colors fill the sky.

Children dart around corners, mothers hush their little ones.

My brother emerges from around the corner.

He hurries up the steps, laughing, chatting excitedly on the phone.

He offers me a wide smile and a quick16837432101_0599e88d82_k kiss on the cheek before stepping inside.

I take a deep breath and smile.

My Guatemalan home.

-Rebekah Hertzler


Today, I’m thankful for a healthy mind, the ability to learn, and the privilege of studying and living abroad. As a group, we keep having these moments; moments where we once again recognize that we are on cross-cultural. It sounds cliché, but each time it seems just as incredible and impossible as the last time. This past weekend, we certainly experienced those moments.

On Friday after a short morning of Spanish classes we loaded up the bus and traveled to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. After slowly swerving through the bumpy roads and a minor accelerator mishap, we arrived in Santiago. We checked in at Posada Santiago, and all eagerly went exploring the new area. The hotel overlooked the beautiful lake, surrounded by volcanoes and low clouds. We walked into town, and there were countless comments made about wanting to live there. The town is quaint and quiet; the people are friendly and sincere. Somehow a few of us ended up walking through some small alleys and dirt paths, and we eventually found ourselves on a dock over the lake, with wooden canoes lining the shore. Behind the canoes were “fields,” little gardens/farms, beautiful in the remote area. We walked a ways and encountered three gentlemen who told us they live and work there in the fields and fish on the lake. It was not a super important conversation or about anything in particular, but striking up a conversation in Spanish with people from the town was awesome. It feels great to be able to use our Spanish conversationally.

In the morning, we visited ANADESA, a community development association and co-op run with aid from MCC. This co-op began after Hurricane Stan in 2005. ANADESA provides a space for women to come together for support, and also to learn and improve skills to better their community. There are also language classes and programs for children. There was a lot of devastation in this area, but there is also a lot of hope and courage in the people there.

16631149377_d9210811bc_kWe took a ferry across the lake to San Juan La Laguna and toured an organic coffee plantation, Cooperative La Voz. It was great to see how such a huge commodity goes through the process of ending up as a warm beverage in my mug. We took the ferry again to Panajachel where we spent the night. Dinner along the lake with the sun setting was gorgeous and the time together was appreciated, as always. There are many street vendors in Panajachel and many of us made use of that and made purchases for ourselves and those back home. My favorite part of bargaining is when I’m able to actually talk with the vendors and maybe learn a thing or two about them. This trip has taught me a lot about the importance of human relationships and how life-giving they can be.

We returned to our homes on Sunday evening, exhausted from a full weekend of learning, and most importantly, building relationships. Homework of course waited until Sunday night, but in my opinion, taking the time to get to know those I’m traveling with better is always worth a little less sleep. We do not have much longer with our host families, so we’re trying to soak in as much as we can about our environments and really be present during our time here. Personally, it will be difficult to say good-bye to my family, and most of the group is experiencing those sentiments as well. We are studying in Guatemala City for only one more week, and by next Thursday, we will all head our separate ways for a week of free travel. I feel I have learned a ton of Spanish, more than I imagined I could in this time, but my mind is also ready for a break and a time of relaxation. We are all looking forward to what the rest of the trip has to offer.

-Karisa Martin


Alicia and Gabby

Sun, Stars, Beauty and Silence in Petén

2 March 2015
This past week, most of the group’s attention was on our Thursday midterm exams. Everyone was very relieved when they were over. We also had a birthday to celebrate, which helped lift moods. The leaders even got a piñata, pizza and cake. Everyone spent the night at CASAS because we were leaving early the next morning. Though celebrations are fun, most were happy they had gone to bed early when we left at 4:30 a.m. for Tikal.

The Tikal weekend was a major highlight of the trip for many of the students. We flew in a small plane into Flores. Flores is a city in Petén, a densely forested, hot and humid region of northern Guatemala that takes up about one third of the country. As soon as we landed we got on a bus that drove us to Tikal. The ancient city of Tikal once housed Mayan royalty and many travelers from all reaches of Central America. Now it is a park where people can come to see and learn about the ancient ruins. One of the most famous ruins, seen behind the group, is called the Jaguar Temple because there was a statue of a jaguar at the top. Unfortunately we did not get to climb it, but we did climb all the other ones that we were permitted to.

Seeing and climbing the ruins of Tikal was a lot of fun, but after 4 or 5 hours running around in the sun learning about Mayan history, everyone was tired and ready to relax at our hotel. We were surprised by the beauty and comfort of our hotel where we would be staying for the next two and a half days. The Gringo Perdido (which translates to “lost foreigner”) is a gorgeous and simple hotel next to a lake. It has a variety of rooming options that felt like they were outside. There was delicious food, beautiful docks, and lots of hammocks to relax in. A favorite activity for many of us was to spend evenings on a roof star gazing. We saw countless shooting stars and could even see the Milky Way. The weekend was full of relaxation, beautiful sun rises, swimming in the lake, and good conversation. There was a town near the hotel and on Saturday and Sunday everyone took a break from swimming to walk half an hour into town to eat lunch.
Though it was very relaxing weekend, the group also found lots of fun things to do. Some found a rope swing over the lake and played on that for about an hour. A Guatemalan family stopped their car and watched, one girl even joined. Some people went on hikes through a protected forest to a beautiful lookout and others took horseback rides through mountains and the country side. The hotel’s kayak had a waiting list almost all weekend and barely spent any time on dry land. But the most exciting moment happened on Saturday morning during breakfast, courtesy of Kevin Treichel. We were asked to stop eating, come outside and stand on one of the docks. Most of us were pretty confused. But when we saw Kevin standing on the other dock and Bethannie Parks walking out to him, it became pretty evident what we were witnessing. After a few words and an awkward wave to us from Bethannie, Kevin got down on one knee and proposed. Many of us had tears in our eyes and felt lucky to have been a part of such a special moment in their lives. Kevin said he wanted the group involved because he had grown close to us and said we were important enough to him he wanted us there.

After that the weekend couldn’t really go wrong. The worst part of it was leaving to go back to classes. I can personally say that the weekend in Tikal was one of the best weekends of my life.
-Isaac Schertz

This week marks the start of the second term of classes here in CASAS. It’s hard to believe that we are already halfway through this semester. It seems like we have been through a lot since we left, but at the same time it feels like our trip is zipping by. As I reflect on the past few weeks, I notice a multitude of wonderful, one-of-a-kind experiences that are shaping me, and will help guide my future. Some are easily described and some are not. Over the weekend, we spent time away from the city in order to have some relaxation and rest. A group of friends and I decided to wake up before the sun and climb a nearby mountain to get a cool view of the sunrise over the lake where we were staying. The next morning, we hiked through the Guatemalan jungle for 45 minutes, and arrived at the mirador (viewpoint) while it was still dark. As the sky began to get lighter, Kevin suggested that we take five or ten minutes to watch in silence. For the next 30 minutes we watched the sunrise and listened to the birds and the howler monkeys without saying a word. It was one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed. The colors of the mountains, lake, and sky grew and blended as the sun changed position. It is hard to explain what made it so wonderful. Our silence created an atmosphere that was even more indescribable. It was definitely a one of a kind moment; something that I cannot easily share with anyone but the people who were there.

Cross-cultural has given me a lot to bring back and share with my community in the states. This includes knowledge about culture and customs, information about social justice problems and new ways the church can care for the poor. Some things I have received will be harder to share. I pray that as my life is enriched by moments like the one on the mountain, I will continue to carry a sensitivity for those with different experiences.

-Grantley Showalter

Alicia and Gabby

A Powerful Complexity

17 February 2015

From the images of the suffering Christ visible on the walls of ancient cathedrals, to the presence of wooden crosses hanging above front doors, it is evident that religion is a large part of culture here in Guatemala. This past week, the visits and discussions have centered around religious expression present throughout the country. On Tuesday, Fabian Cabezos, a Bible professor here at Semilla, spoke about the Neo-Pentecostal movement in Guatemala and discussed the main characteristics that differentiate Neo-Pentecostal churches from others, specifically Pentecostal churches. Later in the week, we had the opportunity to visit a well-known mega church, Casa de Dios. We received a tour of the facilities and learned that it houses around 12,000 people, with 2 services every Sunday. On Friday, Rafael Escobar, dean of the seminary at Semilla, discussed the history of Mennonites in Guatemala. The presentation was intriguing, as many of us learned that the church was founded on Dispensationalism and some Mennonite churches continue to practice it today. The majority of the group attended the morning service at Casa de Dios, along with thousands of others. Several students also attended Casa Horeb, a small Mennonite church in the city. This past week was full of new information and experiences that will hopefully continue to help us gain a better understanding of the lives of those around us.
-Molly White & Kenzie Lapp

To have an opinion about a church is not an easy thing to do, especially when it is a church as big as Casa de Dios. The church is huge. While the designer said it was made to feel small, I wonder if her definition of small and mine are different. Sunday’s service was an interesting experience. The music reminded me of a Christian rock concert I went to once. It was a fun mix of fast and slow songs. The pastor’s wife also led a prayer and told us about providing for the church through the message of a passage in I Timothy.
The main focus of the service was a comical version of Romeo and Juliet or in Spanish Romeo y Julieta. It was really funny, at least the parts that I understood. I am not sure what Romeo and Juliet has to do with God but it was a well-executed performance.
Compared to the other two churches I have been to here, it has its’ own unique style. It is almost nothing like the Catholic Church, with the Mayan flavoring, we went to in ChiChi. While that one seemed very solemn and ritual based, this one was upbeat and lively. The music was similar to the Pentecostal church my host family goes to. There also seemed to be a sense of emotional release shared between the two. However, neither of the others would have performed a comical Romeo and Juilet for the main part of the service.
In total I feel like there must be something people like about this church and God must be present somehow. Personally I don’t feel like I would get much out of such a large church. To me church is about community as much as it is about God. I just don’t see how community is possible in a church that large.
–Molly White

“We evolve into the images we carry in our minds. We become what we see.” -Henri Nouwen

My time here in Guatemala has been filled with sights & sounds that have provoked countless questions and exposed me to ways of life previously unimagined. From the abundance of candles and the aroma of burning incense at mass in Chichicastenango, to the flashing lights accompanied by bass guitars resounding in the auditorium of Casa de Dios, contrast has been an ever-present theme pressing on my mind. I find it difficult to refrain from comparing what I am experiencing to the images I carry in my mind of life in the U.S. An even greater challenge has been trying to consciously push thoughts of “Well, in the U.S…” aside while trying to fully experience things as they are. Images I carry in my mind, as well as numerous advertisements lining the busy streets of Guatemala referencing Western lifestyles, are constant reminders of the unfamiliarity I am experiencing, as well as the familiarity I long for. By resisting the natural urge to categorize and compare solely based on previous knowledge, it is my hope that I will be able to fully experience Guatemala with an open mind and a willingness to learn.
While this would be the ideal way in which I would continue my time here in Guatemala, I realize that the images I carry in my mind are there to stay. I have come to understand that talking with others about contrasting ways of life is a healthy part of processing my experiences in Guatemala. At first, I wanted to build off of a blank slate, but I quickly discovered this was an unattainable feat.
Synthesizing is defined as combining many things to create something more complex, and this process has been important for me to keep in mind. Instead of desperately searching for familiarity and simplicity, I am slowly learning that it is through attempting & encouraging, asking & observing, and finally, listening & receiving that I am able to combine my own images with those around me to create a powerful complexity that remains open to exploration.
-Kenzie Lapp

Alicia and Gabby

Learning to Receive

11 February 2015

After another week in Guatemala, we are all adjusting more to Spanish classes, host families, and the culture here, and it seems our bodies are finally adjusting more to the food – praise the Lord. One of the many great aspects of this trip is the opportunity to spend 2 months becoming part of a family and a culture. While each of our host family experiences is very different, I’ll give a little glimpse into mine so far. Upon first arriving with my new family to my new home, I stepped into a house full of people and about fifteen 9 year old girls running around. Little did I know when I had to leave CASAS early because my family was in a hurry that this was what I was about to come home to. I said a quick prayer asking for strength and jumped on in.

Leona with Familia PolancoAs soon as my luggage was in the house, my little sister, Dina, grabbed my hand and pulled me into a circle of girls. I was seated on a stool in the middle, handed a microphone, and began singing karaoke to “Let it Go” from Frozen, while my mom pulled out the iPad to record. I jumped right in, that’s for sure. The rest of the evening was spent running around learning games of tag and hide-and-seek with the kids, and then of course, learning the proper Guatemalan way to give a kiss on the cheek while saying goodbye to every single family member as they left after the party. All of this while trying to use my very broken and slightly flustered Spanish.

My first night with my host family was definitely overwhelming, but looking back, it was so much fun, and I feel so blessed to immediately have been accepted into such a welcoming and loving family. I have two wonderful parents, and in addition to Dina, I have a 4 year old brother, Sebastian. The craziness of that first night was a pretty good representation of life with my host family. Multiple mornings have begun with my siblings jumping on my bed around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., and many nights have ended after playing soccer, Uno, Just Dance, FIFA, or being at my grandparent’s house late. It’s definitely high energy, but I am loving my time learning more about my family and also about myself. After a fun weekend in Chichi, I was surprised by how excited I was to see my family again and the comfortableness that set in again upon returning home.

From our time in Chichicastenango, our visit to the Widows’ Co-op has stayed on my mind. One of the women shared with us about what they have been through in the past 30 years or so. In the 1980s, Guatemalan military soldiers came to the highlands looking for other soldiers. When they weren’t found, the soldiers began killing the innocent people of the towns, and the people didn’t even understand why. Many fled to the woods, but the men, women, and children found in their homes were killed. 16334418228_f5f67d74af_zFor not agreeing to join the civil patrol organized by the military, this woman’s husband was tortured and killed. Along with others, she fled to the capital and lived there awhile until it was safer. Upon returning after all the violence, there were 85 women who were widowed and left with no money or food for their children. The Widows’ Co-op has helped them to be able to use their weaving skills and sell what they make for profit. It was hard to hear of the violence, tragedy, and hardship they have been through, and I’m still frustrated at the injustice and trying to process what we heard. However, it is encouraging to hear how strong these women have been and how they turned their situation into one of hope. The pride in their smiles and faces as we talked with them and as they showed us their beautiful handiwork is not something I will easily forget.

-Leona Good

We’re reading from a book by Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest who lived in Latin America for a time, who  wrote:  “At this moment I cannot think of myself as someone who has anything to offer – I feel like someone surrounded by experts – but I am willing to live with the supposition that he who truly receives also gives.”  That quote perfectly sums up how I feel.  I’ve been at war with myself this whole cross-cultural.  It’s a battle between giving of myself or receiving from others.  Giving my advice, comfort, perspective, etc. … or simply receiving their stories, food, culture, their way of life.  I want to give; I want to be a blessing.  Never in my life have these two things been impossible.  But now I am in a childlike stage where I am continually learning, needing guidance and help, and unable to communicate with ease.  I’m beginning to realize that maybe this isn’t a bad place to be though.  I’m realizing that being present, curious, and willing to try the unknown is enough of a gift – and not usually an easy one to give.

-Maddie Gish

Alicia and Gabby

Palestinian Neighbors

10 February 2015

We’ve concluded our final week in Beit Sahour. This week has been full of last times: last time walking to the ATG (Alternative Tourism Group) in the morning, last Arabic class, and last meals with our host families. We started out the week watching a film called The 18 Wanted, a comedy/documentary about the people of Beit Sahour resisting Israeli Occupation via nonviolent actions. The film is artistic, entertaining, and has a strong call for justice. It is definitely worth watching. Other highlights include a visit to the Badil Center in Bethlehem to learn more about Palestinian refugee issues and legal status, going to the city of Nablus in the northern part of the West Bank, seeing the Pools of Solomon, stopping at Jacob’s well, and visiting a Samaritan community and learning about their religious and cultural practices today.

For many of us, our day at the Tent of Nations was one of the most powerful times of the trip. Tent of Nations is a farm that has been run by the same family since the time of the Ottoman Empire. All around the farm, Israeli Settlements are being built and the family is continually being pushed off the land that is legally theirs. On repeated occasions the family’s trees (apricot & olive) have been bulldozed during the night by Israeli soldiers, but the family lives by the motto “we refuse to be enemies” and instead of reacting in violence, they vow to plant two trees for every one the Israeli forces plow down. We as a group had the opportunity to help dig holes and plant trees on the property. It was a day of hard work but a welcomed sense of being able to do something, however small, to resist the oppression we’ve spent the last three weeks learning about.

-Rachel Bowman, junior


I’m sure I can speak for a lot of us when I write about how I personally feel leaving Beit Sahour. I’m ready to begin the next part of the journey, to be on the move and feel like a traveler again. But at the same time, I’m hesitant about leaving the many ways this place has been a comfort for me the last 3 weeks.

I’m going to miss the stability of a fixed schedule. Arabic class in the morning, lectures in the afternoon, and the occasional field trip to places of biblical or contemporary significance have been our typical daytime activities. But in the late afternoon when we split to walk home, whether we’re exhausted or contemplative or confused or wired as a response to whatever we learned or experienced that day, we had homes to go to. Families to nurture us in body and spirit, to help us verbally process or even sit in comfortable silence around a TV.

The Palestinian culture is one grounded by the concept of family. This definitely isn’t limited to blood relation – while any given person has many relatives in the area, the way in which they act toward anyone on the street makes them feel as though they might as well be one too. The people we’ve met serve as a perfect example of loving your neighbor, strange or familiar, as one of your own.

ATG has done a marvelous job at helping us experience this firsthand; too many tourists visiting the Bethlehem area hop off a bus, capture pictures and leave again without getting to know the people who live here and have lived here since the time the famous baby Himself was born, but the organization has provided an alternative approach to such visits. We’ve seen how this loving community is slowly shrinking and separating by the hands and the walls of the occupier, and we struggle when we think of what can be done to stop such blatant injustices.

Today, we leave our makeshift home that is the community of Beit Sahour. We cross the border all too smoothly to the side of the “other”, who we will get to know and hopefully love instead of subconsciously hate from the shielded viewpoint of those who are suffering. Deepening complexities will continue to challenge our idea of “comfort”, but I hope and pray that we’ll continue to find it not tied to location, but instead to the hearts of humanity – through these seemingly miniscule instances of love that exist in every one of us. And I think I can speak for all of us when I ask you to do the same.

-Sam Swartzendruber, junior

Riding camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Pictured: Isaac

The Birds

8 February 2015


I envy the birds that fly across
The wall that divides means and men
The birds don’t see the anger of years
That break old hearts and bring new tears
The wall that splits friends and foes
The wall that cuts highs to lows
I wish the birds could tie a string,
wind me up and there to bring
So I could go and see up high
How the wall creates a lie
“They hate us” or “We hate them”
“Always an enemy, never a friend”
No, listen! Open your ears!
Clear the page, erase the smears.
Wait, see! Open your eyes!
Notice the pain. Comfort the sighs.
We together, come once more.
Take down the wall, open the door.
But I sit and stare up at the wall
And watch the birds that seem so small
Way up there wild and free
How both sides truly wish to be.

-Ruthie Beck

Riding camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Pictured: Isaac

This week in the news: Palestine

2 February 2015

Hebron – the first glimpse of the conflict on the ground, and a major reality check. How is it possible that neighbors would have each other arrested, or throw their trash on each other? I stood on one side of a wall that divides the city and half an hour later I was standing directly on the other side thanks to my American passport. I stood on the road originally created for Palestinian use but taken over by Israeli settlers. I watched a dog run down the middle of the road and I thought about the irony of freedom – a dog travels freely, but a Palestinian cannot. My spirits fell as I walked past doors welded shut, a symbol of a once bustling market, now completely deserted. The bone crushing atmosphere in Hebron was distinctly lacking of all hope. But yet in Palestine, hope remains.

We found hope at Bethlehem University, a university made up of young Christians and Muslims both male and female. We admired the greenness of campus and the vivacious life we found in the students. We played basketball (and table tennis) with our Palestinian brothers and sisters. And when we asked them what we should tell the folks back home about what we saw, they said, “Tell them we aren’t terrorists.”

Arabic classes continue to be entertaining and yet simultaneously the bane of our existence. While challenging and applicable, they are also frustrating and demanding. Our teachers tell us, “Use the back of your throat!!” I didn’t even know that throats could make that sound. But along the way, we’ve also picked up the wisdom of our teachers. In the words of charismatic teacher Abdullah, “to learn the language of your enemy is to make them your friend.” From the smiling faces of the local shopkeepers as we greet them with a simple ‘Marhaba!’ we are learning this for ourselves.

The hike through Wadi Qelt took us outside of the classroom and straight into the pages of the Bible. The beautiful scenery and precarious paths took our breath away and also our feet from under us (5 documented wipe-outs from the day). We read Psalms 23 as we sat beside still waters in the (legitimate) Valley of the Shadow of Death. King David’s words have never seemed so real, as we imagined ourselves to be shepherds on the very hills where the boy poet David roamed. Not to mention that we got to stand on the ruins of one of King Herod’s many palaces.

This week has been a flurry of information, images, and activity. It seems that we learn without even trying. With one week left here in Beit Sahour, we want to take in everything we possibly can. The things we have seen and experienced will travel with us even as our time here draws to an end.

– Alena Yoder, junior
– Malachi Bontrager, junior

Riding camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Pictured: Isaac

New learning in Guatemala

2 February 2015

Throughout the big transition from the U.S./Mexico border to Guatemala, we experienced many different emotions. Coming off of such a full and difficult two weeks, we felt we had seen so much but hadn´t done anything about it to help. One evening we talked to a Christian border patrol agent, who challenged us with the thought of whether or not it is legal to be a Christian. We didn’t want to forget what we’ve experienced at the border, but at the same time wanted to be present in Guatemala with our host families and at CASAS.

Waiting for Spanish class assignmentsThe first full day at CASAS was new and exciting, yet a little intimidating because we had our Spanish placement tests and our first Spanish class. Most classes have only two students, with the largest having four, so we have pretty personal attention. We have 3 1/2 hours of Spanish class every morning, usually a class or fieldtrip with the entire group in the afternoon, and the evenings are spent with host families. It has been fun to come to school each morning and tell each other how our evenings went, because each person’s experience is completely different.

Some educational highlights have been our trips in the afternoons. Monday afternoon the group went to the Central Plaza and toured the green National Palace, which is where the President has his meetings. It took up an entire block and held a lot of history inside, with murals depicting Mayan and Spanish conflict, statues representing peace treaties, and the fingerprint of a president in the handle of every door. We also walked around the area a bit to learn about different historic places. On Tuesday afternoon we went to the National Cemetery, which also helped us learn about the effects of many different countries and cultures on Guatemala, including the Chinese, South Korean, and German. The richer families are able to buy a plot and build a structure for the entire family, but the poorer people rent out a grave stacked above ground, with their families paying a certain amount every year for fourteen years, and after fourteen years the remains are moved so the spot can be rented to someone else. Adjacent to the cemetery is the national landfill, where many men, women, and children work (and used to live), sorting through the trash for recyclables to sell, most only making around 10 Q. per day (about $1.25). We learned how several people have died doing this dangerous work, but they have no choice.

The second half of the week was full of physical discomfort, and consequently a few free afternoons, as nearly every single person in the group strangely got sick over several days. It turned out to be a bonding experience, but we´re all still trying to recover from that. Most of us, however, were feeling well enough to hike the Pacaya volcano on Saturday. Though it was a Pacaya lava fieldsteep climb up (and was a little harder because of the altitude and the fact that many of us were still a little weak from sickness) the view of the crater, the valley, and the neighboring volcanoes was well worth it. We walked on the hardened lava and saw the effects of the huge 2010 eruption as well as the one just last year. We experienced Mayan makeup, many native plants, and roasting marshmallows from the heat of the volcano. Overall we’ve experienced and shared laughs, tears, hugs, and unforgettable memories this week, and wouldn’t trade them for anything.

I have learned so much this week about myself, the group, and the Guatemalan culture. Guatemala City is absolutely beautiful, but I still find it strange how it very suddenly changes from a gorgeous green wilderness to very urban. I learned that safety is also very relative to culture. My first weekend and week with my host family felt very overwhelming because I couldn’t understand much at first, and translating everything in addition to a full day of learning and seeing new things, learning the bus route, and doing homework drained my energy quickly. I’ve already noticed, however, a significant improvement in how much I understand and know, and my list of new vocabulary words is ever growing.

To sum up my week in the form of senses, here’s what I noticed: the green valley amidst the rushing traffic, the warmth of the sun, the look on many homeless people’s faces when we passed, the stares I’ve gotten because I stand out, the feeling of a much-needed hug from friends, my baby brother’s smile, dancing, and funny gestures, the loud and abrupt song of strange birds, the roar of the buses, the strong smell of someone’s cologne, the shouts of people in the street, the loud voice of a man proclaiming the gospel on the bus, the sounds of Spanish songs, the taste of good food, feeling weak and tired, the smell of the smoke of a volcano, and the feeling of being so overwhelmed I want to go home but battling through it and seeing how God was carrying me through it all.

– Amanda Helfrich

All We Need Is Love…and maybe some equality

25 January 2015

Good evening from Beit Sahour!

On Monday, we spent the morning at the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) headquarters where we heard from Shareen, a lawyer that works often with abused women, share about her life and work.

And never have I ever been so thankful for my father and opportunities as a woman. In Middle Eastern culture, it is shameful for a woman to go to court against her husband. Verbal abuse is simply something you deal with and physical harm is only serious if you require medical attention. In essence, women’s rights here are only on paper – not in practice. Shareen’s job is to represent these women in court to get divorces and alimony. Not only so, but she also performs awareness sessions for men and women to learn how to better interact and to reveal the wrong, abusive tendencies of fathers and husbands.

Shareen shared her story on how her father did not support her following her true passion to practice law and study in the university. After she applied and was accepted into law school, her father didn’t talk to her for six months. Compare this to my father, who never told me any dream was too big or any bar too high. My gender was not something that defined nor hindered me. “Because you’re a girl” was never an excuse for not completing a task. He taught me through word and action I am a person of great value and also great strength.

I like to think I am the woman I am, largely [because] of my father, so it’s hard to imagine becoming myself in spite of him, like Shareen did. I wish you all could have been there to hear her story with the other 27 of us huddled around her in a small room to listen intently. Some may get annoyed with feminism but I don’t think we should get annoyed with equal rights – because isn’t that what we all should be striving for? Male or female: we are all created in God’s image. Equal rights and equal opportunities only make sense.

But how do you change a culture? Shareen contests we start at the roots. We raise boys who respect their sisters and mothers. We tell little girls they are strong and they have the freedom to be whatever they want to be. That’s what my parents did for me – and I am grateful for that. More than I was before. And I hope that I do the same with my children.

On Tuesday, we crossed the border from Jordan into Israel where our passports saved us from waiting an hour or maybe even more – All because my passport says United States of America.

We were asked very minimal questions and our bags were not scanned. Does anyone spy some inequality there?

We are currently living with host families in Palestine . As I was talking with my host dad, he mentioned how he cannot go to many Arab countries because he is from Palestine.  Because he is seen as a threat, someone to be feared. After living with him for a few days, I know he is anything but. And maybe people would take a different opinion if we got to know each other – if we tore down the walls, both literal and metaphorical, that keep us from deep human connection and understanding.

On Wednesday, we had our first glimpse of the wall that divides Palestinians from Israelis. This wall zig- zags through the land, including as many resources as it can, leaving little for the Palestinians. Some have had the wall built straight through their backyards, losing land and livelihood. Many people have olive trees here, but if the trees end up on the other side of the wall, they simply go to waste at the hands of the Israelis.

The wall is covered in graffiti with moving images that will wreck your heart. Some moving thoughts were:

“Repair the world.”

“Warning! This is illegally occupied land.”

“Take one: freedom of movement, water, equality.”

And several scenes done by the artist Banksy. (look him up – he’s awesome)

I found myself fighting back tears as I walked by this wall. I have never been smacked in the face with injustice like this before. Is this really the human reality in 2015? But, may we never forget there is hope. For a little over 2,000 years ago a baby was born into occupation much worse than what we see now.  And he rocked this world to its core. And who’s to say something as radical couldn’t happen again?

Just to compare the two sides of the wall:

  • Every Palestinian home has a water tank on top of the house and water is a limited resource.

Israeli homes? Water is a non-issue. In fact, I learned Israel takes up to 80% of Palestinian water, leaving the remaining 20% for the rest of the population.

  • Palestinians are not free to move among Arab countries.

Israelis? They can travel freely.

  • Palestinians have special IDs that forbid them to drive on certain roads.

Israelis? Any road, any time.

Let’s talk more about this wall and inequality:

One of our guides made an astonishing point to us about signs around this wall. In English and Hebrew signs read, “Do not damage the wall or risk your life” or something to that effect. In contrast, in Arabic (the language of Palestinians) the signs say “do not touch.” I think even those of us who aren’t English nuts see a pretty clear distinction between the two. Now this is all to be taken with a grain of salt, because I am currently living the Palestinian reality. In three weeks I will cross to the other side, hear different stories, and be challenged even more to reconcile two sides of that wall.

Thursday was our first Arabic lessons. We will be having nine, three hour sessions these three weeks. We are split into two groups which is helpful. My teacher’s name is Jala, she is a sweet middle aged woman who once taught English at university. She is very relaxed and understands Arabic can be a difficult language to learn but excited for us to be able to interact with our families.

For those of you keeping track here are the Biblical sights of the week:

– Lot’s Cave

– the Dead Sea

– Mt. Nebo (where Moses went before he died)

– the Shepherd’s Field (Luke 2)

– the grotto where Jesus was born (The Church of the Nativity)

Assalamu alaykum.

Peace on you.

– Lydia Tissue

Riding camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan. Pictured: Isaac