Before her recent Eastern Mennonite University Alumni and Friends Tour to Israel and Palestine, Betty Holsinger Shenk ’75 “knew it would be great.” It turned out, though, to be more than that.
“This was a trip of a lifetime,” she said. “Its impact will be lifelong.”
During two weeks from Oct. 20 – Nov. 3, 24 participants learned about and discussed the region’s Biblical history, explored archaeological sites, engaged in current social issues of Palestinians and Israeli Jews, and enjoyed local food and the unique geography of the region.
Professor Linford Stutzman ’84, SEM ’90 and his wife Janet SEM ’91, who have led many semester and summer international cross-cultural trips for EMU, guided the group. Participants included alumni, parents of EMU alumni “and friends of EMU students who had always heard about how wonderful our cross-cultural experiences are and wanted one of their own,” said Jeff Shank ’94, director of alumni and parent engagement.
Learn more about EMU Alumni and Friends Cross-Cultural Trips.
A hallmark of EMU cross-cultural trips is making personal connections with local residents, and this trip was no exception. The group visited the “Tent of Nations,” a family farm under threat of settlement expansion; heard the firsthand account of how an Arab Israeli became a business partner with an Israeli Jew; and met two guides — a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew — who are both friends and co-workers and who gave the travelers two contrasting perspectives on some lesser known features of Jerusalem.
The tour was the first for alumni and friends offered by EMU, but more travels in EMU’s unique immersive and educational format are in the works. A trip to Cuba, led by Elaine Zook Barge ’75, MA ’03 (conflict transformation) and her husband Nathan Barge ’84, leaves March 2018. (While the trip is full, a wait list has been started.)
The Stutzmans will lead a fall 2018 Mediterranean Voyage. In summer 2019, Professor Jerry Holsopple ’80 will lead an exploration of Lithuania’s music, art and culture.
Firsthand experiences come ‘full circle’
For some members of the Middle East tour group, the inspiration to attend came from hearing about other people’s travels to the Middle East as part of EMU’s undergraduate cross-cultural program.
When Kendra Martin ’05 was a student, many of her close friends went on that trip, and returned having been “impacted, deeply,” she said. Going on this trip brought her “full circle” and allowed her to experience first hand what her college friends had told her about.
Maddie Clemens ’16 had a “life-changing” semester on the Middle East cross-cultural trip led by the Stutzmans in 2014, and was eager for the rest of her family, including sister Abby Clemens ’16 and parents Becky and Doug “to experience the people and places that had so greatly impacted her,” said her mother. This fall, the four participated in the Alumni and Friends Tour, together.
“We couldn’t have asked for a more enriching experience,” said Becky Clemens.
Connecting the dots
The trip traced 2,000 years of the biblical story and 4,000 years of human history, and offered Martin something she’d been wanting: motivation to read the Bible.
“The Bible was feeling like a big collection of stories about people in places I had no context for,” Martin said. “Now when I read about the Jordan River, for example, in Joshua 1:2 or Matthew 3:6, there is a connection point: ‘Hey! I’ve been there! I can picture what that may have been like.’ The Bible, its characters and the hope we have in Christ are coming alive with dust, sights and tastes.”
Leon Miller ’68 lived for “three wonderful years” in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the early 1970s, and went on this trip with his wife Sandy. He said that seeing Jesus’s teachings in his historical, political, cultural and geographic context was “enlightening.” But he was also sobered by the Israel and Palestine’s ongoing conflict, and said that before the trip, the prospect of returning to the region had given him “great inner tension.”
“I wasn’t sure I would be prepared to see the negative changes which I was anticipating: settlements, the wall, checkpoints and the stories of Palestinian repression by the Israeli military,” he said. “There were few surprises.”
Clemens said that she is still processing her experiences and the “new perspectives” she gained from the trip. The Stutzmans, she said, “helped us connect the dots from what we thought we knew about the ongoing conflict in the region to the reality of what it’s like for Palestinian families living under occupation.”
One especially meaningful experience, Clemens said, was a dinner hosted by a Palestinian Christian family in Beit Sahour who “shared their story with warm hospitality.”
“We were encouraged by those on both sides of the conflict who expressed their unwavering commitment to continually seek ways to live as neighbors and bring peace to their land,” she said.
Linford Stutzman said that he and Janet love the impact they observe on cross-cultural participants.
“This potential for life-changing moments occurs in random encounters walking the streets of Jerusalem, around a meal in a Palestinian home, standing on the cliffs of Arbel overlooking the Sea of Galilee,” he said. “The enthusiasm and joy of travelers is our most rewarding part of the journey.”
Jeff Shank, who went on the trip, agreed. “The alumni and friends who attended this trip to the Middle East not only learned and experienced interesting things but became friends in the process. Everyone seemed to thoroughly appreciate the trip, the leaders, and the experience.”