An Act of God

Through devout faith and prayer, a group on a YMCA service trip to Israel carried out its mission in the midst of unrest.
Feb 2, 2024
Tammy Davis
Tim Brumbeloe & Provided

Tired from the long flight but excited for the adventure ahead, Fort Wayne resident Debbie Hesterman settled into her seat to watch the progress of her plane on the small screen in front of her. As she and the other passengers descended into Tel Aviv, one of her travel companions reached over and changed the channel to a news program. Alarming footage filled her screen; Hamas had just attacked Israel.

Though their destination had enjoyed a tentative peace when the group from the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne (FW YMCA) departed Chicago O’Hare, war had erupted during the 10-hour flight. The very country where they would land was no longer safe.

Dr. Tim Hallman, Director of Christian Emphasis for the FW YMCA and leader of the trip, didn’t know what they would find on the ground, but knew he needed to keep his group of five focused.

“By the time the plane landed, we all knew something bad was happening,” says Hallman. “I had to help everyone stay calm and not jump to conclusions, while at the same time being honest and transparent.”

The trip had been arranged by the FW YMCA as a cross-cultural service experience. Its primary purpose was to raise awareness in the local community about the work of the YMCA in the Holy Land, while cultivating personal friendships across cultures. The group intended to stay at the East Jerusalem YMCA near Bethlehem as home base while embarking on service projects and visits to YMCAs and sites of religious significance throughout the West Bank. While the itinerary changed dramatically, the result of the trip surprisingly remained the same.

On the way to the Y from the airport, the group learned that their host, the CEO at the East Jerusalem YMCA, had been traveling in Jordan and was unable to return home. He arranged for them to travel to the Jerusalem International YMCA (JIY) in West Jerusalem, where they stayed for the entire trip. Upon arrival, the greeting they received from the CEO was heart-warming, but also came with a solemn warning.

“He said, ‘We think this is going to be the worst thing we’ve ever seen. You should turn around and go home,’” remembers Hallman.

But finding a flight was nearly impossible. Hallman spent hours on the phone trying to make travel arrangements for his group. Their travel agency didn’t have weekend hours and booking online was impossible. Airlines canceled flights en masse and each time Hallman thought arrangements were set, they fell through.

“No matter what we planned,” says Hesterman, “it didn’t work out.”

Rather than hiding in fear, however, the group got to work. Each morning they met as a team, which helped them stay centered and kept them concentrated on what they had come to accomplish.

With the local staff at the JIY focused on providing food and basic necessities, they were stretched too thin to give the spiritual and psychological support so many people needed in that moment. Soon after their arrival, the JIY CEO asked Hallman and his team to care for three stranded travelers from the Denmark YMCA. As they waited for their rooms to become ready, the group took their new Danish friends under their wing and offered assistance however they could.

“They felt the Americans helped them get home,” recalls Hallman.

Assisting their fellow guests from around the world gave them a sense of purpose, so the group provided care to anyone they could. They prayed with a worried woman from England after sheltering from an air raid. They worked with a stranded Canadian-Egyptian couple to create a successful social media campaign that got them out of the country. Surrounded by tragedy, the group spent much of its time simply providing comfort.

“There was a lot of grief work,” says Hallman. “Every family there was processing an immense amount of trauma.”

Although the team was able to explore parts of the city during the day, nights felt more tense. Hallman’s room at the JIY faced toward Gaza, barely 50 miles away, and he remembers the western sky lit up with bombs. While jets flew overhead, he heard Israel’s Iron Dome destroy incoming missiles.

“We sort of felt safe,” he says, “but it was the equivalent of being in Fort Wayne if Angola was being bombed.”

After five days, the FW YMCA group finally secured a flight home. During their stay in the Holy Land, they spent time with Jews, Christians and Muslims – forming friendships, finding opportunities to encourage, empathize, counsel and pray. As a result, they came home with a more empathetic view of the world.

“God was definitely guiding us,” says Hesterman. “When we left for the airport Wednesday morning it all flooded over me. I almost couldn’t stop crying.”

“We made genuine connections with people who had to stay while we were able to leave,” adds Hallman. “That’s really heavy.”

But through the devastation, angst and feelings of helplessness, Hallman, Hesterman and their team knew they were appointed to be in this place.

“There is peace in the middle of chaos,” says Hesterman. “Only God provides that.” 

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