Many summers ago, I began my Student Leadership journey in Orlando, Florida at SLU 101. Taking notes as quickly as my seventh grade self could write, I began laying the foundation for what would eventually become my new, ‘leading-for-Jesus’ persona. As the years went on, the adventures with SLU only became more amazing; I attended a forum at the National Press Club, navigated through the streets of Oxford, and saw the history of the world with my own eyes from atop the Eiffel Tower. Once I finished SLU 301 in Europe, there was only one thing left for me to do: I would travel to the Middle East and walk where Jesus Himself once traveled. With my bag packed and my passport stamped, I stepped out to complete the final leg of my experience at SLU 401.
The most exciting aspect of SLU 401 is that literally everything you see or do is a new and exciting adventure. After breakfast one morning, my group loaded the buses and headed to the Sea of Galilee. From there, everyone got on a boat, and the sailing began. Few present managed to stay emotionless as the American flag was raised at the front of the port alongside the flag of Israel. To me, the two flags waving in unison as our vessel rocked along the water symbolized the togetherness of not only the two countries, but also of their histories and importance to each other.
About halfway through the ship’s voyage, the clouds darkened and water began to fall from the sky. The rain was in no way severe, but I began thinking of Jesus’ trip on the same sea. Even when the storm was raging and His boat was flooding, He managed to stay cool and collected, eventually calming the entire storm itself. It was amazing for me to picture that, while I was nervous about a light sprinkle and some slight boat rocking, the worldly danger of a torrential storm was the last thing on Christ’s mind. Near the end of my ride, the other students and adults and I began to sing Christian hymns. With no noise around us other than our voices of worship, this was one of the most peaceful times of the trip, and almost miraculously, the rain ceased as our voices began to crescendo louder and louder. The Sea of Galilee left me in awe.
Another unforgettable moment (which the trip had no shortage of) was our day-long exploration of Petra while in Jordan. The ancient city was absolutely breathtaking, each building and feature carved perfectly into the canyon walls. The city’s most prominent feature, the Treasury (which many people recognize from the Transformers or Indiana Jones movie series), is unbelievably larger-than-life, and the aqueduct system in the stone is simple yet ingenious. As my group hiked through the gorges, I couldn’t help but take note of how much dedication and commitment it must have taken to ensure that the city was perfect in every way.
Easily, the highlight of the excursion to Petra was one of the things I had been looking forward to throughout the entire trip: riding the camels. After my friends and I had made it to the end of the city, we spoke to a guide and hopped aboard our own private transports. As the humped animals seemed to race through the valleys, I roared with childlike laughter; the experience was the dictionary definition of thrilling and memorable. Though my goodbyes with my camel ‘Humphrey’ (generously named by yours truly) was obviously difficult, I was ready to continue on my leadership journey through the Middle East.
After making it back to Israel, our buses made their way to Jerusalem, and our first full day here was absolutely jam-packed with bucket list items. The morning began on the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, both filled with colorful yet peaceful life. This was especially profound to me; I walked and prayed in the same place that Christ had over two thousand years ago. After reflecting in these sites, the group traveled to the Garden Tomb. Throughout this stop, we were constantly reminded of one thing: that even though the tomb itself is extremely important, it is key to focus on the fact that the tomb is EMPTY- and for good reason! While here, we took the Lord’s Supper, and myself and the other SLU Student Ambassadors (part of a program I highly recommend, by the way) got to help and read Scripture to the others in attendance.
After the Lord’s Supper, I was taken to Bethlehem where the students had a private anointing service with Brent Crowe. Here, each attendee was personally and privately prayed over. These prayers asked that the students follow Christ through our next stages of life, implementing all of the skills that SLU has taught us over the years. As this day closed out, I felt fully prepared to move forward and live out the plan that God has set aside for me.
Perhaps the only experience from the trip more emotionally and spiritually meaningful than this day in Jerusalem was my trip to the Jordan River. As a child, when I would read the story of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan, I would always picture a stream running through a lifeless desert; I couldn’t have been more wrong. The river was absolutely beautiful, the green water slowly running beneath the towering trees growing on the riverbanks. Here, I was baptized for the second time in my life.
When I was baptized for the first time back in Texas during my time in elementary school, I did it as a public profession of my faith, just as Christ commanded. However, this second time, the ceremony acted as proof that I am giving my all in life to follow in Jesus’ footsteps (quite literally, in this case). This picturesque moment was unreal, and it will certainly stick with me for the rest of my life. In fact, I can do no justice in describing the colossal scale of how personally significant this experience was to me; all I can do is suggest that each Christian go and do the same.
While I have written about a few of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I went through on this trip, the small moments in between were equally amazing as well. Whether I was playing cards in a hotel lobby with new friends or chanting ‘Shalom, y’all’ at every given opportunity, I was in a constant state of pure happiness. These experiences are not things that can be artificially replicated, and SLU did a phenomenal job of ensuring that the entire trip is personal, informative and enjoyable.
As I sat at home post-trip and began writing this blog, I could not help but feel saddened by the thought of my journey with SLU being over. However, as I continued typing, I had an epiphany. SLU is not meant to be something that you attend over four summers and then move on from, left with nothing but memories and photographs. The purpose of SLU is to prepare students for their futures, giving them at least a twenty-year head start in the fields of leadership and Christianity in the real world. My trip to Israel did not signify the end of something, but instead the beginning of my new life going forward. As a student preparing to face life as my own person, it is essential that I be sure of everything I do; I need to be prepared for difficult times, always searching for opportunities and, most importantly, solidified in my faith. From Orlando to Washington, D.C., Europe to the Middle East, Student Leadership University has taken every step imaginable to guarantee that I continue to grow as Christ intended, and I am unbelievably thankful for the opportunity to have been part of this program for the past four years.