“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
After 3 days of training in Fort Wayne, Indiana, our small but mighty team of 5 ladies were off! We were a motley bunch—all of us different ages, from different states, and from very different backgrounds and careers. Throughout our trip, we always laughed about how if it wasn’t for these 3 months, it's very possible our paths would never have crossed.
Our time in Israel and Palestine was divided into 3 parts. Before jumping into Part 1, we received more in-depth training about the history and politics of the region, the present situation, and beginner Arabic lessons.
Part 1: Bethlehem
During this time, the five of us stayed with a Muslim family in Aida Refugee Camp. Aida camp is one of three refugee camps in Bethlehem, Palestine. I don’t know about you, but when I thought of refugee camps, I pictured tents, children running around in ragged clothing, international UN volunteers bringing food and supplies.
But that is not the case in Aida camp. This camp was first founded in 1948, so many of the temporary housing structures have been torn down and built to be more permanent. This was both sad and admirable to me. Sad because of the lack of progress in the refugees’ situation and admirable because of the refugees’ resilience.
The family we stayed with was lovely. They had six kids ranging from 7 to 18. The mother of this family started Noor Rehabilitation School in the camp, a school for special needs kids. The school employs local women in the refugee camp and in Bethlehem. The women raise funds for the school by giving Arabic cooking classes to tourists.
In our one month here, we taught English, assisted the teachers in providing physical therapy for the kids with special needs, and were extra pairs of hands and feet during the cooking classes. This is my host mom (in the hijab) and her youngest daughter (in the pink sweatshirt) below!
My favorite times with this family were our daily dinners. The sense of family was very strong. We all ate family-style from a big platter in their living room and watched Arab Idol (yes, it is what it sounds like—the Arab version of the singing competition, American Idol). Though there was a language barrier, these dinner times were moments where we all ate together and got to know each other.
This is a traditional Arabic dish called Maqluba. It literally means “upside down” because you layer rice, chicken, cauliflower, and other veggies in the pot, then flip it over onto a platter to serve!
Here's our team with our host mom outside their house in Aida camp.
Part 2: West Jerusalem
Before we moved to our second host family, we took a group retreat to explore the Sea of Galilee region, which is in the Northern part of Israel. We stayed in an Airbnb provided by a Messianic Jewish family and shared a meal with them. This family explained to us that being a Messianic Jew means that you partake in all the Jewish customs but also believe that Jesus is the Son of God. In a few days, we drove around the Sea of Galilee and saw different sites where Jesus walked with his disciples, taught, and performed miracles. We went to the place where the Sermon on the Mount happened (“Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for they will inherit the kingdom of God…”), Tagbatha where Jesus multiplied the 5 loaves and 2 fish, Capernaum, Nazareth, and more! At each place, we read passages in the Bible where these same exact events took place. It was incredible and stunning!
Our team on a church rooftop in Nazareth. This was a couple steps away from the church where Luke 4:14-21 took place.
After this getaway, we moved in with our second host family, David and Ayo. I like to call them our unorthodox Orthodox Jewish couple. Unorthodox because they each run their own unconventional blogs ("Jewlicious" and "Jewrotica"), are invited to speak around the world and practice aerial yoga. Take a look! She’s pregnant and still practicing and teaching yoga!
The first night we were there, they took us to the Shouk, which is their outdoor marketplace—farmer’s market by day, Taiwanese night market by night. AKA there are a TON of food stands during the day and small restaurants and bars open at night. We chose one Asian-Mexican fusion place and had Korean style burritos. I was sitting there and thinking—this is crazy. Looking around, I could be back in America right now. People are laughing, eating outside, there’s music, twinkle lights, and YET the refugee camp I just stayed in for the past month is only FIVE MILES AWAY. This was a reality I had to remind myself of in the next month I was in West Jerusalem.
During the month, we volunteered at a hospital, a food bank, and—my personal favorite—a reconciliation organization called Musalaha (which is Arabic for "reconciliation"). At Musalaha, I met some amazing people from various backgrounds—Palestinian, Israeli, international, Christian, Muslim, etc. They bring people together with the hope that prejudices will be broken down through meaningful encounters, discussions, and genuine forgiveness. Sometimes this happens while riding through the desert on a camel with someone you’ve known for less than 24 hours!
Part 3: Bethlehem
Oh, little town of Bethlehem! Our team breathed a collective sigh of relief when we were back, and my next host family was the most unexpected of them all! I lived with two Palestinian Christian GRANDMAS. Yes, you read that right. Grandmas who spoke about 10 words of English, went to bed at 7pm, and lived on Star Street—the street Mary and Joseph walked down to get to the place Mary eventually gave birth to the baby Jesus.
Despite the language barrier, these grandmas welcomed me wholeheartedly into their home. They cooked me breakfast and dinner, and together we woke up at sunrise to buy fresh bread, hung up laundry on their roof, and watched Turkish drama series over dinner. They also took me to meet their sons and daughters and cousins. My Arabic improved immensely during this period because, well, I had to learn in order to be able to talk with them. Now, I am able to get through a very basic phone conversation in Arabic with them asking me how I am doing, where I am, and when I will be coming home.
This final month I settled into a routine, and it truly felt like I lived there. I got up at 7am, ate breakfast with my grandmas, and walked 15 minutes to Bethlehem Bible College, where I volunteered as a librarian’s assistant in the library. On Mondays and Wednesdays, we had group devotions at 8am. During these times and during lunch times, I was able to meet many internationals also volunteering in the area and local students who studied at the college. Their stories were eye-opening and I cannot tell you all of them, but I will tell you one.
One of the friends I made there, Walter, had become interested in Israel and Palestine when he stumbled upon a picture of this Bethlehem mural by the anonymous British artist and activist, Banksy (seen at the top of this post).
He was intrigued by the irony of this mural, and how it revealed our own biases and prejudices. Eventually, he came to Bethlehem to study Peace Studies at the Bible College, while also tackling side projects. One of them included his own version of “creative resistance” in which he turned tear gas canisters shot by Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem into Christmas ornaments. He was featured on various local and international media outlets that applauded his efforts in showing that weapons of violence can be turned into efforts promoting peace, awareness, and nonviolent resistance.
Bethlehem Museum also participates in creative resistance. These are tear gas canisters that were found in their courtyard that they have turned into wind chimes.
As you have been reading this post, you may have thought, Wow, this doesn’t really sound like the mission trips I’m used to hearing about. When does Vivian share the Gospel? When does she share her testimony? When is the altar call?? The numbers of people “being saved???”
Instead, I learned what it means to love people in very practical ways. I learned to enter into people’s everyday lives and realities and to live with them as Jesus would have. I listened to people’s stories. Many people felt that the rest of the world had already taken sides without giving them a chance to tell their story. I listened. I encouraged. I “laid down my life” by using the hours I had in a day to come alongside people in their everyday activities—even if it was as simple as folding papers, stuffing envelopes, and shelving books.
But during times when doubt crept into my mind questioning if what I was doing was “meaningful,” I looked at the life of Jesus and realized that this is what he did every day. He ate with people. He spent time walking and talking with people. His life wasn’t filled with public speaking events (although there were a few of them). His life was filled with him doing ordinary, everyday things —walking from city to city, encountering people, listening to them, and loving them well.
What a challenge it is for me (and hopefully for you!) to realize that our life legacy is written like this too—day by day, minute by minute, friend by friend, stranger by stranger. Not by the milestones the world sets for us to achieve.
Finally, I learned that the gospel is God the father, Jesus the friend, and Holy Spirit the comforter entering into our crazy, messy lives and saying, “I’m here with you. Let’s tackle this together.” In every aspect of life where we feel overwhelmed or experience pain and hopelessness, He is there.
What will your IMMERSION story be?
Check out 3-Month Holy Land IMMERSION
You must have a group size of at least 6 members to join this trip. Please view the Small Team trips or call our Servicing Department for more options at 888-475-6414.
For most trips, you must have a group size of at least 6 members. Please view the Small Teams tab on each Community page or call our Servicing Department for more options at 888-475-6414.