With the help of a generous donor, a select group of Freed-Hardeman students began the spring semester with a faith-building experience unlike any other. They enjoyed a 10-day trip to Israel that required only a small investment of their own funds. A part of the university’s Engaged Learning Initiative (ELI), the cultural and educational tour was led by Bible professor Mark Blackwelder.
The three hours of credit they received for Middle Eastern Cultures paled in comparison to the other benefits they gained from their experience. “It changed my perspective and how I read the Bible,” Sara Denton, a senior biology major from Harvest, Alabama, said. “Going into the future, whenever I read my Bible, I’ll have a clear picture of what I’m reading, and I’ll be able to pass on the things I’ve learned to others.”
Bradford Durham, a Spring 2017 finance graduate from Roanoke, Virginia, said, “The trip to Israel made me think more deeply and more seriously about my relationship with God, and it made me realize that God wants to communicate His will to me with the same compassion that he had toward those He spoke to in person.”
Madison West, a nursing major from Cherokee, Alabama, said, “There’s no feeling like being able to make a connection to a place in the Bible that you’ve only painted a picture of in your own mind. It’s so incredibly uplifting.”
The trip to Israel included stops in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee and the Golan Heights. Students saw sites important to Christians, as well as places that helped them better understand the culture and complexity of the Middle East. Although their travels included Mount Zion, a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum and the Mount of Olives, they seem to have been particularly impressed by the Mount of Beatitudes.
“My favorite site was the Mount of the Beatitudes,” Denton said. “It wasn’t my favorite because its gardens were well kept or the view was pretty. It was my favorite place to go because Dr. Blackwelder read the Sermon on the Mount while we were there. Closing my eyes I could picture Jesus preaching it from the water and all the crowds listening and being filled with peace, just as I was.”
The spot was also one of West’s favorites. “Listening to Dr. Blackwelder give the Sermon on the Mount surrounded by the most bright and beautiful gardens, looking out on the calm Sea of Galilee, and watching the sun set is a feeling that is indescribable,” she said.
Skylar Johnston, who recently received her Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, claimed not the mount but the sea that borders it as her favorite site. She said, “So many stories in the Bible talk about Jesus and His disciples near the Sea of Galilee! It’s so cool to think about walking on the same shores of the same sea, having the opportunity to watch the same sun rise over the same hills.”
In addition to FHU representatives Mark and Dana Blackwelder and Dave and Eve Clouse, former President Milton Sewell and his wife, Laurel, also accompanied the students on their journey. He was impressed with the students and their interactions with others on the trip.
The diverse, 42-person group, about half of whom were students, meshed well as they became better acquainted with each other. “I saw intergenerational relationships develop,” Sewell said.
The donor himself had made a trip to Israel 20 years ago and had a great experience. He wanted to share that experience with current students, according to Sewell. Utilizing a trust established in memory of his daughter, he provided the majority of funds for 20 students who accompanied him on the trip.
Students, who had been nominated by the deans, were very grateful for the unexpected gift. “I was able to go on a spiritually and physically life-altering trip just because of his pure generosity and love for the Lord,” West said.
“I can never be thankful enough for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Johnston expressed her gratitude to the donor this way: “Your gift gave me the opportunity to expand my world-view, worship with Christians in another language and learn about places where our Lord Jesus walked. Thank you.”