Exploring Every Opportunity, One Unknown Step at a Time

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My jeans are soaked with rainwater; my rain boots are caked in mud. It's raining in Jerusalem in March, and I've just come back from a service at St. James' Armenian church in the Old City.

As I ducked into the nearly pitch-black chapel a few hours ago, my eyes took several minutes to adjust to the light of just a few candle lamps. The singing of young seminarians reverberated through the chapel, captivating my wandering mind.

The whole service was in Armenian. The only words I understood were the few “amens” sung at the end.

As a junior in college, I spent a few months in 2011 in Jerusalem as a student on the Middle East Studies Program. When I was given the opportunity to come back, I simply couldn't say no.

In August, I moved to Jerusalem to work as the program assistant for MESP. And, though the past months have been some of the most tiring of my life, this has been the easiest and most life-giving job I've held.

Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul
Heidenreich (center) and fellow MESP students visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in spring 2011.

As a student, I came to MESP with what I thought was a pretty big worldview. “I've traveled. I've seen things,” I thought. But never before had I learned things like this. Never before had I so completely opened myself up to another people—to be affected by what affects them; to be influenced by what they believe; to listen and set aside my desire to be right. 

Just a year earlier, as a student at BestSemester's Washington Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., I started this journey of learning how to learn. There, under director Terry Mattingly, I learned what it meant to be a journalist and a Christian. As storytellers, he taught us, we must step into the shoes of another, to present their story as they would—not as our biases would dictate. 

I was a scared sophomore interning in the big city. These concepts were giant; they made me realize how much I still had to learn.

But I had to jump in. After all, I was responsible for producing the articles I was assigned to write. I quivered when I had to approach a congressman with a question. I was covering economic news—things like currency manipulation, export rates and credit union lending caps—and felt like I was in a constant state of trying not to look extremely confused.

At the end of the semester, Terry told me he noticed that about halfway through the semester the quality of my work faltered. Examining my journals, blog posts and articles, he had tried to figure out why, he told me.

I think you lost confidence, Terry said, and, when that happened, your work went downhill.

I didn't realize it until he pointed it out, but Terry was 100 percent right. And I took his insight to heart, completely floored that he would care so much about one of his students to earnestly seek life-changing insights for her life.

Sari and Nour
Heidenreich (lef) with her friends Jumana and Nour (right) in spring 2011.

As a student on MESP a year later, I drew from these lessons. I'd questioned congressmen; why couldn't I go over there and start a conversation with that Palestinian college student? I'd learned my lack of confidence was just a silly thing keeping me from living fully. So I went over and spoke to that college student.

Her name is Nour. 

We spent time together when I was a student, and when I moved back here last year she welcomed me into her home as family.

Since that time I've spent days—and nights—with her, having heart-to-hearts about religion, culture and the struggles of marriage and motherhood. Her growing English vocabulary, my significantly smaller Arabic one and Google Translate are helpful. We've gone shoe shopping together, and I've helped her daughter, Daniella, fall asleep at night.

Our worlds—hers as a Palestinian and mine as an American—have become intertwined. The impact of her life on mine will never leave me.

And that's why this job, though at times all-consuming, is the most life-giving: I completely believe in the way MESP educates its students.

Get out, go meet people, ask them questions—we tell them this nearly every day. But it's not just a message I'm preaching to them; it's one I'm preaching to myself. It's the reason why I went out in the pouring rain tonight to attend a church service I only understood one word of. It's the reason I have a full weekend of activities planned, despite the fact that I'm exhausted from a long week.

As my contract with MESP comes to an end, it's hard to know precisely how these experiences from MESP and WJC are going to affect the rest of my career.  But it's easy to see how they're going to affect the thing that, arguably, matters more than anything else—my character.

It's in honor of these two great programs that I commit to these things: to treat each person I meet with dignity and respect; to step into others’ world and see things from their perspective; to not be silent when I encounter injustice, bigotry or ignorance; to shove my insecurities back where they belong and take advantage of every opportunity life throws at me. 

Those are my next steps.

Reflection written by Sari Hedenreich. Heidenreich participated in two BestSemester programs (Washington Journalism Center and Middle East Studies Program) during her undergraduate studies at Messiah College before graduating in 2012 with a degree in journalism.  She recently completed her time as program assistant for the Middle East Studies Program in April.