LCN Article
Really Good Shawarma: Student Thoughts on the Holy Land

November / December 2019

Thomas White

For six of the students who pioneered the Living Education–Charlotte program, the most memorable part of that endeavor took place not in Charlotte, North Carolina, but in the heart of the Holy Land itself. On Living Education’s trip to the nation of Israel, these students experienced the unique biblical insights that come from an archaeological dig and a tour in the land of the patriarchs—including a visit to Jerusalem, the once and future capital of God’s Work on Earth. We took the opportunity to talk with each of these Living Education graduates from the class of 2019, who eagerly shared the insights and perspectives they had gleaned from their time in the land where, someday, we all hope to live.

While the tour let the students see Israel’s most famous sites with their own eyes, the dig let them get to know the land with their own muscles—and according to Tressie McNair, there was no prior archaeological experience required. “The dig was not as complicated as I thought it would be,” she said. “It can feel like yardwork. You dig—there are just as many thorns as dead grass, and you’re clearing it away.”

Francesca Rodino concurred, describing the work as “not so much a treasure hunt—you’re not going to find a whole bunch of relics—and it’s not going to be as romantic as it sounds. You’re going to be hauling dirt, hauling rocks, doing a lot of manual labor. At the same time, it’s nice, because you’re working with different kinds of people, and you’re able to develop a camaraderie, to talk to the people in your little square dig site. It’s definitely really difficult—it’s dirty work, and it’s fun.” At the end of such an experience, the chance to tour Jerusalem came as a welcome respite. “It’s exhausting,” Francesca said emphatically. “You earn the tour.”

That tour progressed at a rapid pace—after all, when you have a limited time in a country as iconic as Israel, you fit in everything you can. “We covered a lot during the tour, and I’m glad we tried to get a whole bunch in there,” said Andy Casey, who felt awed to walk where one of God’s closest friends may have walked. “There was an old gate up in Tel Dan that they think could have been around during the time of Abraham,” he said. “That was when it really hit me that we were in Israel—when they were talking about how ‘This could have been a gate that Abraham went through. When he came up to rescue Lot, this is the area he was in.’ It’s pretty crazy to think that there’s stuff remaining from back then—evidence for our faith in the Bible.” Of course, much of Israel, particularly Jerusalem, is not exactly as the patriarchs left it. “Being on the Temple Mount was really interesting, because it feels really important,” related Jonathan Smith, “but because it’s Muslim-controlled, it feels kind of off, like something’s not right. Islam’s control at the Dome of the Rock itself is really strict. You can’t have Bibles there, and two of ours were confiscated. That was probably one of the most memorable spots.”

Despite the cultural tensions permeating the region, more than one student described Israel’s environment as surprisingly peaceful. “A lot of people think that Israel is really dangerous, but honestly, I felt super safe in Israel,” explained Geoffrey Ruddlesden. “We were in Tiberias, and there were these little kids just walking around without their parents, but they were all happy! So, it’s actually not that bad. People get the notion that if you go to the Middle East, you’re going to die or at least get attacked, but honestly, I felt really safe in Israel.”

As safe as modern Israel felt for our travelers, the dangers that ancient Israel faced, described in Scripture, were made abundantly clear. “We went and saw Solomon’s gates,” said Nathalie McNair, “some of his fortresses that were basically the barrier between kingdoms, because everything is right on top of each other. We went to one of his fortresses, and if you look off into one direction, that’s where the Philistines lived, and that’s not that far away. By comparison, we in the United States live in a very sheltered country that doesn’t have to deal with people right on our sidelines any time war should arise.”

Seeing how astonishingly close Israel’s neighbors are, it’s not hard to imagine the spiritual warfare the Israelites suffered along with physical conflicts. “It helped add some humility to my perspective,” Nathalie reflected. “When you think about how they fell into idolatry with their neighbors, you think, ‘How could they let God’s truth go?’ But when you look at how close they were—and obviously they had trade routes and talked with their neighbors—how can we be so vain as to say we would have done better?”

And Israel’s modern separation from God’s truth is no less blatant than that of its past, a sobering fact brought home by an all-too-familiar symbol. “What taught me the most, I think, actually happened twice,” Jonathan said. “It was in Tiberias, which is a city on the Sea of Galilee where we stayed the first week, and then in Jerusalem itself, where we were in the last week. I saw two ‘gay pride’ flags, one at each city. In Tiberias, there was one just hanging down from a window, but in Jerusalem it was actually blowing in the wind for people to see. Those little moments were reminders for me that, yeah, Israel was really important, it’s where all our heroes of faith were—but where God is now is with us, with the Church and its congregations. There are more important things than geography.”

Nevertheless, learning firsthand about biblical geography was certainly a highlight of the trip. “The geography of the Bible has a lot more meaning to me now,” Andy said. “To actually be able to see it and realize how close everything was, how close the Israelites’ enemies were, the threats that they were facing—that all made it a whole lot more real. It would be terrifying to be a nation there, surrounded by enemies.”

To be sure, all of God’s people face powerful adversaries of various kinds, and for Tressie, one location in Israel offered a poignant lesson in confronting them. “For the archaeology dig, we were staying in the Elah Valley, in a kibbutz on one side, and that kibbutz was probably where the Israelites camped when David and Goliath fought in the valley. We climbed this hill across the valley, and it was called Tel Azekah—that’s where the Philistines camped,” Tressie explained. “When we came back to the kibbutz, I was looking up at the hill—I had looked down from it and seen this huge valley, but looking up, it just struck me that here, David went to the brook in between, got the stones, looked up, and saw this huge hill with all the Philistines and Goliath coming down. It was amazing to me, the realization of how he could look up and see the enemy, right there—this huge thing. Everyone behind him was afraid, but he still had faith and courage.”

Our personal “Philistines” may come in other forms, but they can often feel just as overwhelming to us. “We can feel like it’s all coming down, but David was still able to go forward,” Tressie concluded. “He took the step and started running toward all of that. It was exciting to be in a place where one of God’s people was so strong and courageous because God was working through him. No matter where, God’s people have always been courageous and faithful to Him. Anywhere we are, God can work through us.”

“Whatever your thoughts on Israel are,” Francesca mused at the end of our interview, “I think it’s so important to realize how significant that little country—especially Jerusalem—is to God. In the Millennium, it’s going to be the capital of the world. It’s really where God chose to put His presence. That’s why it’s important. It’s insignificant in pretty much every single way except for the fact that it’s where God decided to build something. And that’s why that place is so special, that’s why we went there for a dig—it’s not even because it was a cool experience, it’s simply because that is where God says, ‘This is where I’m going to live.’ That’s where everything good is going to start again.”

“Oh, and the food,” Nathalie piped in. “I have to mention the food. You can’t go to a country like Israel and not eat lots of food. You shouldn’t. No, eat the falafel, eat the shawarma—just eat, okay? I don’t care where you are, what you’re doing—eat. I don’t know if I could pick a favorite food, but I had a really good shawarma.”