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Concordia University Irvine students find God around the world and in each other through unique study-abroad experience

Imagine finding God in a quiet sunset at the top of Mount Sinai. Or in a warm batch of home-made chocolate chip cookies prepared for you as a surprise by a friend. Imagine experiencing God’s love through a foot-washing ceremony in the Arabian Sea. Try to look for God’s love in the eyes of a child as they hand you a small, but personally valuable, gift.
Some of these may feel familiar; they are everyday signs of God’s love. Others are signs of God’s love that can only be found, if you’re lucky, once-in-a-lifetime. But the one consistency in all of these places, in all of these actions, is that God’s love is always present.
Last August, a group of 30 people from Concordia University (Irvine, California) went out “to teach the gospel to nations,” as Adam Lee, assistant professor of English and a leader of the trip, said, “to literally fulfill the Great Commission.” In the course of just four months, they traveled across five continents and ten countries in a pilot project that brought them around the world.

Concordia University Irvine students gather in the stern of a boat on the Sea of Galilee last October. Photo provided by Adam Lee

Many students on the trip needed support in places and times where they had to keep their faith quiet.

As part of the group, Dr. John Norton, associate professor of English, who co-led the trip with Lee, brought his wife and two children, ages 9 and 6, along. Since their return, the Around the World Semester has been approved as a permanent study abroad program.
Through Argentina, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Kenya, India, Indonesia, and China, the 30 members of the group became a family. They worked together in orphanages, taught Vacation Bible School, had home stays in China, visited one of Turkey’s largest mosques, saw the Holy Land, and more. Through myriad experiences, they found God’s love at work in the world.
“What students learned from having their own Lutheran faith as a filter — from the Orthodox Church in Russia, to Egypt where they bowed so piously that they had welts on their foreheads, to attending an Indian worship in the temple, to China (which is officially atheist) — is all they have to do to be saved. Students came to the realization on their own that Christianity is the only religion where you don’t have to [work for salvation], it’s just grace,” Lee said.

Finding God’s love in each other

One unique way they were able to share God’s love over the course of the trip was finding ways to do special things for their travel mates along the way.
“There were many incidents where guys would do special things for guys and vice versa,” Lee said. “One day in Russia, girls came and blindfolded guys and took them out to a campfire, where they had found black-market ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies and gave affirmations about how guys had been spiritual Christian examples for them.”
And like the family they had become, they saw each other at their best and at their worst. But through the good and the trying times, they loved and supported one another.
“I learned how important community is. Our team grew so close. We saw each other at our worst moments. We are still close [since coming home]. I’m glad I was able to experience that,” said Joanna Steinhaus, a sophomore from Huntington Beach, California.
“I learned to love people better,” said Sam Bretzmann, a graduate assistant from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Getting to know these people, to know their pasts, their mistakes, knowing God’s love for them enables and inspires me to better love them. Being on this trip only enhanced that.”
Many students on the trip needed support in places and times where they had to keep their faith quiet. In some countries, for their own safety, they had to keep very quiet about the fact that they were Christian, a challenge for energetic, faith-filled twenty-somethings.
“Turkey was spiritually difficult for some at first because we couldn’t overtly express our faith,” noted Ann Utech, a senior from St. Louis, Missouri.
And in some places, especially those where Christians are not the majority, the students had to work a bit harder to find God at work in the world.
“We had thought we would be bringing God to all these places, but we learned that God was already there,” Lee said.
“What I take away the most is that God is working in all places. He is the God of every city. It’s something to realize that there is something greater out there than ourselves,” Utech said. “Just to be a part of God’s nature, beauty, and wonderment really changed my daily life. On the trip, I expected God to challenge me, and I learned that God does that wherever I am.”

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