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It’s the last day of debriefing for the Nehemiah team and we are just finishing up on the spiritual emphasis and are now getting ready to pack for home. In fact, the team is cleaning as I type. We are staying in a school in the heart of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. It’s actually really convenient….BECAUSE THE MEDITERANEAN IS A FIVE MINUTE WALK AWAY!! Can you tell that made me happy? It’s been nice for walks during free time and the occasional swim. The waves were really crashing in today and Sarah and I were getting tossed around pretty good. But it didn’t matter because it was our farewell swim.

Since my last update a lot happened (as it always does). We wrapped up our ministry time in Jerusalem on Saturday and on Sunday headed south. We hiked to the waterfall at En Gedi (where King David and his men hid from Saul), floated in the Dead Sea, scaled the massif of Masada, and swam in the Mediterranean. But since this is my last I’d like to try to give you a summary of the Nehemiah summer.

Leadership – Nehemiah team members arrived at Training Camp before the Staff Disciplers and other students. It gave them a chance to come together and bond as a team. They also used the time to create the ministry skill groups that were used by all the teams as an outreach tool.

This year they created two dances, two dramas, and a puppet performance. The team then turned around and taught them to all the teams each day throughout Training Camp. This was a challenge for the five students on dance, who had to coordinate teaching close to a hundred students divided between nine teams.

We also added a couple of new leadership components to Nehemiah this year. The leadership groups, Waldo (as in Where’s Waldo), Corporate, KBAM!, and Shark Bait (don’t ask me, they chose their own names!), were assigned to be in charge on all of our international and domestic travel days. For instance, Waldo was in charge of moving the team from Training Camp to Chicago O’Hare Airport. They were responsible for every part of it, from making sure everything and everyone was packed up, taking down tents, and closing up camp (a huge project), and then coordinating the move for one night into the Admin building to sleep with three other teams.

They also coordinated a shower schedule, what time we had to load the vans to leave and then the travel to Chicago, and checking in at the airport. Shark Bait took the team from O’Hare, through Helsinki and all the way through Customs in Shanghai. Then KBAM! took over and negotiated us through the Shanghai subway system (remember, there were 19 of us with 21 various roller bags and additional packs), to Shanghai’s main train station, got the team fed, then loaded on to the bullet train to Fuzhou (not as easy as it seems). Once in Fuzhou they got us loaded on the bus and finally into the rooms.

All teams have had major transitions, as well as smaller, yet significant, transitions within Israel. KBAM! is coordinating today’s packing up, cleaning our way out, to Tel Aviv airport, check in and into Helsinki airport, where Corporate will take over and lead the team into the city (we have an 8 hour layover). They then get us back to the airport (on time hopefully) and then back on the plane home to Chicago. I think you get the idea. It’s been a lot of practical leadership experience which has stretched all of them in learning how to work together; to plan, execute, as well as to communicate before, during, and after their leadership session). They also have to work through the inevitable conflict that arises among themselves when they work so closely together with their peers. I have been involved in a number of mediations, which has been really good because we have been able to teach them how to work out conflicts/frustrations in a healthy, Christ-honoring way.

Ministry –Besides being divided into Leadership and Care groups, the students have also worked together into ministry groups. Nehemiah’s ministry began in China. I reported how it went in earlier updates, but to recap, the team facilitated a Culture/Language Camp for Chinese students. We did this in conjunction with Chinese believers. There were about 45 Chinese, ages 5-18 who participated. The ministry was fun, upbeat, fast-past, but most importantly, relational. Many of our students had the chance to share their testimony about how Christ has worked in their life to the whole group, and a number our students were able to share about Christ on a one-on-one basis. However, our ministry in Jerusalem was a different experience….

The goal was for our team to spread throughout the Old City and develop relationships with the shopkeepers, who were mostly a mix of Armenian, Arabic, and a few Jewish men. This was really hard for the introverts on the team and a number of them were overwhelmed and intimidated the first day. But day-by-day the team went out and initiated conversations and by mid-week most were loving it! Because they were not the “typical tourist” who blew in, bargained, and blew out, they had a totally Middle Eastern experience. Which means hospitality. In taking time to talk to and get to know the shopkeepers, they then opened up and showed our team the warmth of their cultures. Our students were offered tea, coffee, juice, pastries, and then would sit and talk about the weather (hot) family, religion…and sometimes (but not often) politics.

By the time we left Jerusalem there were many students who said it was their most favorite ministry opportunity they’ve ever been involved with on Royal Servants. True, we didn’t see any of the shopkeepers make a decision to follow Christ, but we left a lasting (good and positive) impression of what a Christ-follower looks like, which is important in a country so divided by religion. In fact, many shopkeepers remember past Royal Servants, as I touched upon in a previous update.

Spiritual life – The team’s Care Groups (gender specific) is where each day’s quiet times were discussed; where the students prayed and were encouraged spiritually. Whereas on regular Royal Servants teams you get up fast (and early) and then jump into a full day, we built in times to intentionally slow down. At Training Camp the team would indeed get up early and fast (the average time it took the whole team to assemble was 3 minutes from wake-up), we would then walk to the top of the hill, which is the highest point in the county (not that Wisconsin is noted for its large hills). There we gave the students time to “slow down” by taking 30 to 40 minutes to journal, read, or simply stare out over the countryside. The point was to help them see the importance of intentionally creating space in their life, which would enable them to get emotionally and spiritually ready for the day – and to create a discipline.

Once in Israel, each Care Group was in charge (on a rotational basis) of leading the team in prayer each morning and evening. Again, with the goal of building in time, each day, to focus on Christ and show them the importance and benefit of creating a habit (or discipline) of prayer. Each group displayed a lot of creativity and wisdom initiating and leading prayer.

Which brings me to today, our last (and 51st) day together. We will finish up with a last quiet reflection time, have an additional devotional time relevant to going home, and then a little free time before we start packing and cleaning in earnest. The team finished up their group reports yesterday, which were summaries of what they did and how they saw God work in the areas of ministry, leadership, and spiritual growth as a team. Ask to read them, they did an excellent job.

I enjoyed working with the students on Nehemiah team. We had a healthy and normal cross-section of Christian students, with all of their gifts, strengths, weaknesses, anxieties, awkwardness, and frustrations. We had immaturity, as in “did I just see you wipe off the bottom of your bare feet and between your toes, put on your socks and shoes, and then grab the carrots to serve at the meal without washing your hands?!!?” We had conflict – not severe by any means – but it was all worked through and resolved in healthy ways. And we had students leading with confidence and doing an amazing job! In short, we had the body of Christ. We had real life. We had good kids (they all seem like kids when you’re 62…going on 30) who want to love and serve Christ well; who are learning (through success and failure), and who desire to grow and develop the gifts that the Lord has given them so they can honor God and impact people.

They want to learn to lead. A definition of leadership we use is when, “A person uses his/her gifts and strengths to influence others to become more deeply connected to God and more fully the people He created them to be.” “Kingdom leaders (Nehemiah students) influence people to move from their agenda to God’s, and from where they are to where God wants them to be.” Leadership is not about telling people what to do; it’s not about image, position, power, or privilege. Leadership is about becoming a servant (as Jesus did), and being fully and deeply rooted and grounded in Christ. It’s about responsibility. It’s about living and working in an atmosphere of loving each other and putting others first. Being a leader is modeling what it looks like to be an upright and mature follower of Christ.

LastLY, I want to thank those of you parents out there who entrusted their children into my hands. It has truly been a joy and a privilege to be their leader this summer. They are a gifted, unique, and Godly group of young men and women. I, and the whole senior staff (Holly, Jenny, and Janessa) love each and every one of them.

For the Nehemiah Team,

P.S. I just let the air out of my Thermarest mattress for the last time (I was sleeping on 4 tables pushed together in a random school classroom) and packed it away. It will feel good to get home to my own bed. It’s been 67 days since I’ve slept in it.

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Hello everyone! My name is Maddy Simonsen, and I am one of the Nehemiah students. As many of you know, Royal Servants updates usually revolve around telling the audience about aspects of the trip such as team dynamics and ministry elements. However, I would like to share with you a personal account of my experience on this team and how it has impacted my life.

I stare at my journal, oblivious to the walls of Old Jerusalem that stand before me. A blank piece of paper glares back, seeming to taunt me. Pressing my pen to the paper, I will myself to write. No thoughts come. More and more time passes by as I continue to gaze at the journal but for the first time in ages I am unable to compose a single phrase. What is the subject that has defeated me? Joy. Ironically, in the middle of one of the most spiritually significant cities in the world, on an adventure of a lifetime, and in the presence of some of my closest friends, I cannot identify a single thing that sparked joy within me the entire day.

Throughout my life, I have struggled with a consistent joylessness. I believe that this struggle is rooted in my perception of myself. Possessing a profound fear of disappointing others, I place burdens on myself to be perfect in an effort to please people. When I do not live up to this standard, negative thoughts consume my mind. Statements like, “You didn’t perform as well as you should have,” “You don’t possess enough of this character trait to be helpful,” or “You just don’t have enough skills to be useful” fill my head while I engage in daily life.
Because I worry that others will be frustrated or disappointed in my efforts, I have slowly drifted into a mindset that looks at myself through this lens. I am never good enough. As a result of these feelings of inadequacy I have become sorrowful in all my failures. I find myself mourning over my lack of faith and weeping over my character “flaws and failures.” Significantly, I tend to dwell in this state.

I have never imagined that this mindset could impact my ability to receive joy. However, this summer I have come to realize that it is impossible to discover joy when you constantly feel you are not good enough. Through my Nehemiah experience, I have learned about the necessity of joy in every Christian’s life. I have also begun to recognize that this mindset does not reflect God’s hopes and plans for me – He has so much more. As I reached this epiphany, I have been challenged to look at my life through a perspective of joy rather than of sorrow.

In a few of the quiet times assignments we read through the Beatitudes. When Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit and the sorrowful, it can appear at first glance to endorse a spirit of sadness and mourning in life. However, as I read these passages I noticed that these individuals are not to remain in that state. The poor in spirit enter the kingdom of heaven where they receive hope that creates an unquenchable joy. The mournful receive comfort and can be released from their shackles. Simply put, the awareness of brokenness in the world allows us to experience hope and joy through God’s comfort. He desires for us to recognize our need for him and receive the love that he provides.

In remaining in a state of mourning, I am actually prohibiting God from working completely in my life and giving me his blessing. I cannot be fully used unless I accept that gift. Understanding that my natural tendencies destroy my ability to experience life as he intended, I have been attempting to change my mindset from of focusing on my failures to appreciating the joys in my life. Instead of dwelling on all of my shortcomings, I try to thank God for the way that he will use me despite my imperfections. Rather than disapproving of my perceived character flaws, I am learning to thank God for the way that he has made me. For me, this requires an intentional focus throughout everyday life.

While I would love to be able to say that this summer has caused me to completely change my former mindset, this statement would be far from the truth. I still struggle with listening to the lies that tell me I am not good enough, which destroys my joy. However, I continue to rejoice, knowing that life is a continual process. We are transformed throughout life, but change requires time, persistence, and reliance on God. Despite the lack of huge visible change during the summer, I am incredibly excited to take the things I have discovered this summer and apply them to my life back at home.

While my journey will not be completed immediately, I am confident that I will achieve this goal with patience and work. I believe in a God who desires for me to have joy. I believe in a God who can transform my heart and enable me to adopt this mindset so I can have assurance, despite the large battle ahead of me. My hope and prayer is that through steady, continual mind adjustments and devotion to the Father, I will continue to grow in my ability to discover joy and live as God intended.

My name is Maddy, and this is my journey with the Lord on the Nehemiah team.

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Walking the walls. Of Jerusalem. How cool is that?

I looked at the individuals assembled across the hall and was struck by variety; most were old, some were young and clean-cut, with a scattering of scruffy dudes who looked like they just got off their Harley’s. One sweet older woman who must have been in her 70’s (and probably Russian judging by her accent), had on a black floral shirt with a black baseball cap. The cap was floral as well…in a way…but maybe she wasn’t a connoisseur of plants because the hat was decorated with marijuana leaves. I’m sure she had no idea. But what struck me most was what they all had in common – they were all broken in some way. Each person was battling through life and all were bruised and battered, why else would they be waiting patiently for the doors of the soup kitchen to open? It was a privilege for two groups of our team members to be able to serve these guests today and on Monday. I think it represented the loving hands of Jesus.

There is a saying among those who’ve been on (or led) Royal Servants trips, “One day is like a thousand years.” Ok, maybe that is in the Bible (2 Peter 3:8) but it equally applies here. Which simply means that four thousand years’ worth of experiences have happened since my last update on Saturday.

I mentioned that we were all tired, so on Sunday we took a Sabbath rest. It was nice for everyone to relax, hang out, and get caught up on laundry (at least some did). We capped the day off by going to a local church. It was so nice to worship with people from dozens of nations, singing songs in Hebrew and in English. And the message was spot-on and relevant for most of our team.

Every day this week our team members have been intentional about developing relationships with shopkeepers within the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. They’ve been building on a foundation that was laid by previous Nehemiah teams. Let me explain. Amir is a small shop owner who sells fresh squeezed juices, coffee, etc. When one of our groups (Daniel, Kaity, Abby, and Brooke) showed up at his shop he immediately welcomed them in. He recalled with fondness that years ago when he was 17 he used to play games in the streets with past Nehemiah students who took the time to get to know him. And now a new generation of Nehemiah students are following up on the good work of past Royal Servants. They were there early this morning prior to opening helping Amir squeeze lemons and get the shop ready for customers. They even drummed up business for him from the passing tourists and had many good conversations over fresh juice and hot coffee.

Our accommodation is…unique. We are outside the Old City’s wall, but it’s only a 2 minute run to the Jaffa Gate and into the Old City. We can easily see it when we step outside our…hostel? Hotel? Construction site?? The very first words said to me when we finally found the place (an epic journey, to say the least) was, “Did the owner tell you about the construction?” My first words were, “No”. I guess that’s one word. But they did get the door on the guys room that night, and they also got the kitchen sink in! But the wiring (capped, so no worries) is hanging loose all over the place and a fine film of drywall dust falls over everything on most days. And the water is either scalding (only in the afternoon….who showers then?), or cold. Not the kind of cold that causes you to hyperventilate, but cold enough that you have to get up your courage, grit your teeth and just jump in each morning. It’s bracing. They say it’s healthy (OOOkay), and it sure wakes you up…though a good cup of coffee works just as well and feels much better. Those of you who love a hot shower in the morning get what I am saying. But it’s super convenient and I love the old flagstone floor in the kitchen/living room – which only has half the lights working, and those that do work blow a breaker each time a girl turns the light on in their bathroom. Oh…they did get mirrors in most of our bathrooms yesterday!!

The team is doing really well. It’s a fairly even-keel group of young men and women, and there is little drama or issues among the students. But there is a growing realization of how little time we have together and a growing bittersweet sadness that in nine days we will be flying home. However, I think they will stay focused and on-task. We will be ministering in the Old City from Thursday-Saturday, (as well as visiting Yad Vashem – the Holocaust Museum) and then leaving for Masada on Sunday. Monday we drive to Joppa where we begin the debriefing process and bring closure to an amazing experience.

Well, it’s late and I’d better end this and get to bed. I want to get as many hours of sleep as I can before the mosquitos come in the windows (no a/c and no screens) around 3:00am to take their unholy share of my blood. Mosquitos? In Jerusalem?? Well, at least we aren’t battling the cockroaches like in China…at least not yet.

For The Nehemiah Team,

PS – We have also seen quite a few of the Biblical sites in the area. We’ve seen the Garden of Gethsemane (we go to Mount of Olives tomorrow), walked the Via Dolorosa and seen all the stations of the Cross, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, etc. We will go to the Garden Tomb on Saturday.

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