The day that I applied to Passages was the first time the name of my childhood church passed through my mind in six years. I know this because the day I applied to Passages was six full years after I’d last been to my childhood church, much less any Catholic church at all. I am so much worse than what loyal Catholics refer to as their “Christmas and Easter” brothers and sisters who make an appearance at mass during those two landmark holidays and then sleep in every Sunday for the rest of the year. I couldn’t even tell you where there is a Bible in my house, much less if we own one at all.

Now that my time in Israel is over, I feel like I can admit that I saw Passages as a discounted trip to a nation I’d always wanted to travel to and saw the religious aspect of the program as a small something I would have to deal with along the way. I went through the motions when completing the Pre-Trip Course but stopped to smell the flowers for the bits I found more interesting.

I read excerpts from Dr. Shapiro’s essay out loud to my family and watched the video detailing the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with fervor. I got uncomfortable at the thought of purchasing a Bible, so I asked Father Peter, one of the faculty members for our bus, if he could bring me one from Elon University. He graciously agreed. I thought I would be able to go through the motions on this trip the way I’d gone through the motions all through my childhood in Sunday school classes, on the day of my first communion, and during my confirmation training. I thought I would be able to bow my head and get away with the little knowledge I had, to fly under the radar.

I am happy to say that I was wrong.

After a lengthy first day of visiting biblical sites in Nazareth, to which I felt no pressing ties, I had a feeling my cover wouldn’t be blown. It wasn’t until our second day, when we were traveling to several sites along the Sea of Galilee that I felt, for the very first time, like my identity had been exposed: I wasn’t even the smallest bit religious.

It happened at the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, to be exact, around 8:30 in the morning, when our tour guide, Avi, asked me to read a passage of the Bible that corresponded to this location. I was stunned. I quickly dropped my backpack, reaching into it frantically to find my Bible as the last stragglers in our group settled calmly into seats in a circle, watching me. I grabbed the Bible itself—the first of a few struggles—hoping I would magically open to this page he requested, that I would lay my eyes right on the verse, so I could read it aloud and be done with it forever. But anyone who has opened a Bible before knows that is nearly impossible.

Now things got really embarrassing—I had the Bible open and was flipping through it in chunks. My first instinct was to search the front half, but that strategy didn’t work. The silence of my classmates watching me struggle became too painful, so I glanced up, hoping to lock eyes with Leah, my best friend who convinced me to come on the trip in the first place, hoping she would come to my rescue. Unfortunately, she was on the opposite side of the circle, looking at photos on her camera. It was then that I made an unprecedented move, looking at the girl closest to me (whose name I didn’t even know yet).

“Hey, could you help me find the passage?” I whispered sheepishly, thinking she was sure to reply with a look of annoyance and disgust.

To my surprise, she smiled and took the Bible, grabbing a chunk in the back, turning right to Matthew, and with a flick of her fingers again, finding the exact verse and pointing to it in seconds. I was astounded at her kindness and began reading.

The verse itself was about Jesus coming to this church and finding hundreds of supporters present with no food to eat. It was then that he asked some of his disciples to assemble all the bread and fish they had, when he multiplied it all hundreds of times—enough to feed all the folks outside. They were shocked at his generosity and ability to perform a miracle in such a time of need. I finished reading and stood for a second, thinking about how, in the very same place that this miracle happened, a friend on my trip had performed a little, tiny miracle in the form of offering me a helping hand when I needed one.

Leaving the church, another little gift from God came to me when a different participant on the trip, I boy I barely knew from Elon, came up to me and shared some kind words.

“Don’t worry about not being able to find the verse right away,” he said. “It takes me forever to find things, and even then, half the time I’m wrong.”

Upon saying that, a handful of other students agreed, chiming in in their own ways. They said they were impressed by my reading of it and how they felt the point got across beautifully. I was so happy and touched by the kindness of my peers in that moment, and their generosity only grew from there.

Because of this interaction, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions about my faith during the remainder of my time in Israel, because I felt reassured that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know the answers. This stuff was tricky, I learned, and even Father Peter didn’t know everything about the bible or its teachings. Everyone was learning, and I was no exception to that. Maybe I just had a little more learning to do.

I didn’t expect this sort of kindness and understanding from my peers, but this attitude they demonstrated is one of the foundations of a strong Christian faith. I hope to carry it forward on my own in the future.

Photo by Danielle Farah