By: Esther Fultz
Most students come to Cedarville with at least a basic knowledge of the Old Testament. We know the stories of David, Samuel, and Solomon like the back of our hand – sometimes so well it’s easy to forget that these are real events that happened in real places. Physically traveling to these real places can provide a new perspective for believers and help them grasp the truth of the events that occurred there.
This summer, Cedarville’s men’s basketball team traveled to Israel on a trip called Walk the Story with the intention of doing just that. The mission trip strengthened players’ faith and team relationships and allowed them to use their sport to connect with Palestinian teams and show them what the love of Christ looks like.
John Farwell, who works with Athletes in Action, led Walk the Story. Athletes in Action is an international Christian nonprofit organization dedicated to helping athletes grow physically, mentally, and spiritually. Farwell leads this trip yearly but it’s not just for athletes. Pastors, church groups and business groups can go as well. The team hiked over 80 miles in 12 days, stopping four or five times a day for lessons in places where significant biblical events took place.
“John did a really good job of hitting home at life lessons and different things that college guys struggle with,” said Pat Estepp, Cedarville University’s men’s basketball head coach. “Each lesson had a theme or takeaway and often there were four or five takeaways for the guys every day.”
Farwell has a master’s degree in biblical geology from Jerusalem University, which gave a Hebrew perspective to the lessons rather than the Western evangelical perspective most of us are used to hearing in our churches.
“I saw them starting to process stuff as they were sitting there at the different sites, looking down at the valley where David killed Goliath or while we were up on Mount Carmel where Elijah killed the prophets of Baal,” Estepp said. “These things are stories these guys believe but they don’t feel real. I wanted us to go somewhere and make it real.”
Through the lessons, the team dove deeper into portions of Scripture that aren’t always focused on in church and got to experience them in a tangible way.
“We don’t talk about the Old Testament as much as we should,” said Bryan Vander Have, an MBA student and a guard for the team. “We always are talking about the New Testament and rightfully so. There are lots of great things that come from the New Testament that we need to take advantage of like salvation. However, seeing the value and the prophecy in the Old Testament and understanding how God planned out every word in the Bible, to point toward Christ reminded me to take advantage of every book of the Bible.”
In addition to hiking through Israel and learning from Farwell, the team connected with locals by playing four games with Palestinian teams, including three in Bethlehem.
“Most of them didn’t speak any English, so it was really cool to see how the game is a language in itself,” said Chris Rogers, an MBA student and a guard on the team. “It’s a way to connect with guys who you can’t really talk to, but we can understand each other and share this with each other and help each other grow, all in a two hour timeframe.”
Amidst unrest between Israel and Palestine, playing Palestinian teams was a tangible picture of the peace and Christlike love the Gospel can bring.
“Playing against the Palestinian teams was cool because some people might come in from America and be like, they’re not that good because they’re Muslim and we’re Christians and we might not consider ourselves the biggest friends with them,” Vander Have said. “So it was just cool to be able to see they’re people. They’re normal. It was fun to play with them and get to see what their life was like.”
Because the team was interacting with a largely Muslim culture, outrightly sharing the Gospel during the two week period in Israel was difficult. Instead, the trip focused primarily on discipleship for the team and furthering relationships Farwell had already established, allowing him to have a greater influence long-term.
“John has lived there for three years and he goes back eight to ten times per year to share the Gospel for 12 or 13 days,” Estepp said. “He’s constantly seeing the same people and most of what we’re doing is helping him have bridges to share the Gospel as well. I saw God use our guys in the lives of people we were interacting with.”
Sometimes, these interactions came in unexpected places. Estepp and his team witnessed their Muslim bus driver, who initially seemed closed off to Christians, open up and become more receptive to connecting with the team.
“He couldn’t speak English very well but just watching his personality and body language change over the 12 days he was driving us around was kind of cool,” Estepp said. “I tried to talk with him as much as I could, and seeing that change was really neat.”
The trip was a success and something Estepp hopes to take his team on again in the future. Along with the players, seven parents had the opportunity to go and Estepp hopes to one day open a trip up to alumni as well.
“Most people don’t get to go to Israel until they’re in their 60s,” Estepp said. “When you can take college guys and let the Bible become real to them at that age instead of when they’re 70, that could be a life-changing thing for them. It’s not the type of trip where you come home and you had 75 conversions, but it is one where the lives of the players and the people we got to go with were changed.”
Esther Fultz is a senior Social Work major and the Off Campus Editor for Cedars. When she’s not writing or editing for Cedars she enjoys thrifting, making coffee, exploring new places, and spending time with friends.