Trips to the Holy Land Bring Faith to Life
For more than thirty years, Drs. Jesse and JoAnn Long have frequently traveled to the Middle East as a part of an archaeological partnership. Jesse, Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology in the Alfred and Patricia Smith College of Biblical Studies, is married to JoAnn, a Professor of Nursing and Director of Research and Development in the Department of Nursing, both at Lubbock Christian University.
After establishing their work and roots, the couple has spent the last decade leading multiple tour groups through Jordan, Egypt, and Israel, bringing stories from scripture to life and forming lasting, deep relationships in the process.
They made their first trip to Jordan back in 1982—their first excavation. Jesse has long held a passion for archaeology, but in 1994, he became a co-director of Khirbet Iskandar Excavations. The project has held 13 seasons of field excavation, research, and restoration work, and many of those are where the Longs have participated in their archeological excursions.
“We actually first started going to that part of the world in 1982,” Jesse explained, “and then we continued on and off from that point up until 2010.” JoAnn joined him for many of the trips until they welcomed their daughters, Laurel and Leah.
“I had a long hiatus where I didn't go when our daughters were growing up,” JoAnn explained, “but as soon as they launched, I was back into it. We hit a point, though, where we started to think, ‘Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could share this with others?’”
In 1996, during JoAnn’s time away from the trips, Jesse partnered with a colleague at McMurry University to bring a few students along on an excavation experience. Sharing his expertise not only in archaeology but also in Biblical studies with those students solidified his desire to expand his time in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan beyond the archeological digs.
“Our lives together have been about ministry,” JoAnn shared. “We've always found time to preach, and even when we weren't preaching full-time, we’ve always tried to work with the church in some way or another. Our decision to come to LCU in the first place was because we wanted to be together in ministry.”
That desire was realized in 2010, when Jesse and JoAnn brought their first group with them overseas, and the trips quickly became a staple in their lives. Since 2010, the Longs have led 14 groups on trips to the Holy Land.
“We view these trips as ministry,” explained Jesse, “and about spiritual formation. We talk a lot about story—the story of God is what we are retelling, recalling, even reenacting. That’s how I frame it, as we go from place to place—it's much more than a tour. We really have been intentional about spiritual formation as the experience has evolved over the years. We can, in reading scripture, internalize that story—as N.T. Wright says, we then become actors in an ongoing drama.”
That was certainly true of the most recent trip. While each group varies from year to year, the June excursion included several LCU board members, Jesse’s fellow Bible professor, Dr. David Fraze, and even LCU’s own president, Dr. Scott McDowell.
“While it might sound a little cliché to say this was a ‘trip of a lifetime,’” Dr. McDowell explained, “it really was just that. There is something profound about actually seeing and setting foot in the places that you have read about and imagined all your life.”
As with so many other trip participants before him, though, President McDowell’s immersion wasn’t limited to just visiting. As Jesse explained, in many locations the group reenacts the events from different stories that occurred there. At the site of the battle between King David and the infamous Philistine, Goliath, the 6’8” university president played the part of the giant.
“In the Elah Valley, I had purchased a sling, and when we acted out the story, President McDowell was Goliath and Dr. Fraze was David,” Jesse explained.
“It's really fun to have people along—so many tell us that they've waited a lifetime to go,” he added. Some of the reason for that is the cost of the trip. “We wish that could be different, but it's just the way it is, that’s what it costs.”
Neither LCU nor the Longs benefit from the trip financially—the cost is strictly the expense of the experience. “We do stay in nice places,” Jesse noted. “That's often a question—and it's safe—but the focus is really on spiritual formation—it’s a journey of faith.”
Like most trips, planning and executing such an extensive itinerary is difficult. Not every trip follows the same itinerary, or even visits the same countries.
“The order sometimes changes depending on what's going on in that region,” Jesse explained. “On our last trip, we had to move stops around because Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks (and Pentacost) was happening at the same time. Usually, we go we go up to the Galilee first, but the city was overflowing because of the holiday, and we couldn't get rooms, so we went to Jerusalem during that time instead.”
“It's hard work, of course,” JoAnn said, “But it’s always worth it.”
When asked about her favorite location they visit, JoAnn replied, “It's difficult to say, because they're all amazing—my favorite place is wherever we are on that day. We hear so many stories when we’re on the Sea of Galilee—the life of Christ and His ministry took place around there. That's very impactful, to think about all the miracles that were done, or the calling of his disciples. But we span the entire Bible in terms of where we are, and one of the things that I think about is that the Bible really is one story. It's the story of God communicating with mankind—communicating His purpose, His redemptive purpose—from the very beginning to the life of Christ, and even the apocalyptic literature. Seeing it all, zigzagging through Old and New Testament places, reminds me that I'm part of this grand narrative, and part of the fabric that God is weaving together in some majestic mysterious way that's beyond my comprehension.”
Jesse’s answer to that question was more specific.
“One of the places that stands out to me is Shechem. Tell Balata, the ruins of ancient Shechem, are near the city of Nablus, and you have Mount Gerizim on one side and Mount Ebal on the other. There are so many stories—in Genesis, it’s the location of Jacob’s well, and Abraham was associated with the site throughout his life. We usually will say a few things explaining the role of Shechem in the larger story, but we specifically call attention to Joshua. He had a covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem, recorded in the last chapter in the book of Joshua. This covenant renewal was right in front of the temple of Yahweh—the Temple of El-berith, to the God of the covenant. A Harvard professor has demonstrated that this must be the temple referenced there.”
“There was a covenant renewal at Shechem, at just after they came into the land, and this is at the end of Joshua’s life. As we're standing there with the group in front of the ruins of the Temple of El-berith, we have the group recite from Joshua 24. I tie the renewal to Jesus and what he's done for us, but this is the place where Joshua said, ‘Choose you this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ So, we're right there where he said that, and then we have a covenant renewal ceremony with the group. And to me, that's special.”
Another stop they often make on that same day is one to which Jesse feels a very personal connection. “On the same day, we'll go to Shiloh, where the tabernacle was located,” he explained.
For Jesse, the story of Hannah comes to life from I Samuel, chapter one. Jesse explained that he was born prematurely, and as a twin. The facility they were at had only one working incubator at the time, and he had to spend several weeks on lifesaving machines.
“But my mother, like Hannah, prayed that if I lived, she would dedicate me to God. So, when I go there, that's a centering passage for me. And on this last trip, I was especially tuned into that—it may have been because of everything that happened—but it reminds me of who I am, that I belong to God, that I’m dedicated to God.”
He went on to say that one of the most interesting parts of the trip is discovering which places stand out to different people.
“Sometimes they'll call attention to the same thing—everybody likes and is moved by being on the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee—but often different people resonate with different stories and different places. It’s so powerful seeing people identify with this story or with that story or something that happened while we were there, and it's a fascinating part of the experience for everyone. While we all experience it roughly in the same way, it's an individual experience, too.”
“We build community,” added JoAnn, “and it's a tight group that gets to be together on an extended retreat, having these amazing experiences that they’ve dreamed about having their whole lives, experiencing things they’ve only thought of in their mind's eye but now are standing right in front of. A lot of times, we're making new friends and connections—we eat together, we laugh together, we have these experiences together, and sometimes we cry together. It's special.”
One trip this past May put Jesse, JoAnn, and their entire group went through an unimaginable test as tragedy struck just before the group was poised to head to Egypt. Chris Ford, who was there with his wife, Cindy, one of JoAnne’s colleagues in the Department of Nursing, collapsed on one of the excursions. JoAnn, along with three of the nursing students tried to resuscitate him, but he passed away before the ambulance could arrive.
“We know now that he was very ill, and even had an AED been right there next to him, the odds would have still been extraordinarily low,” JoAnn explained, “especially with how long the ambulance took to get there and how far off the hospital was.”
“It was traumatic for the whole group,” Jesse recalled solemnly. “Obviously for Cindy, and for JoAnn, who went with her. But the group of people who were together, who God placed on this trip, the number of nurses—there was a lot of processing, but there were special moments in the way that they were ministering to each other.”
JoAnn recalled Gene and Melody Sheets being stabilizing presences throughout the remainder of the trip. “They were precious in their faith. We had a range of participants—some nursing students, and some Bible students, and the group really reached out to minister and encourage each other. We could see God’s hands among us, even in our grief.”
In the aftermath, Jesse took the rest of the group to Egypt, while JoAnn and their guide, Ruby, stayed with Cindy.
“Ruby came every day that we were there,” JoAnn said. “Within just a few hours, the rest of the group had to leave for Egypt, so she came morning and afternoon to the hotel, making sure that we could negotiate the decisions being made since we don’t speak Arabic. The law required us to make arrangements with a Jordanian funeral home. There were just so many layers of bureaucracy. Within an hour or two, the American Embassy was calling us, and we had to get things figured out to transport her husband's remains to a morgue hours away, and we had to ride in the back of the ambulance—it was very traumatic.”
“But the Lord's presence was so real,” she added. “People like Ruby just kept showing up, and not only showing up to help, but to show that she understood, and she made us laugh. She just has this gift, in the middle of everything. It was harder than anything I've ever had to go through, you know, even just empathizing with my friend who's lost her husband and dealing with the logistics of it all. I can't even describe the people who were just were so good and kind. And we just saw God's presence everywhere.”
While that was the only group that went through such a traumatic experience during their time together in the Land of the Holy One, the trip always provides many opportunities for the groups to bond. Much of the trip intentionally includes scripture readings, dedicated time for prayer, and daily evening devotionals.
“It helps in our own growth, too,” JoAnn shared. “Though we visit and talk through the same things and places year after year—that's not new for us—our joy is sharing those things with others. There’s something incredibly special about seeing someone who has read scripture and loves the Lord but hasn't had an embodied experience. Watching them see what it's like to smell and taste the foods, to stand in the Elah Valley where David and Goliath fought—every single person comes away saying, ‘I'm never going to read Scripture the same way.’ Because suddenly, they've stood in that valley, and they see the mountains on either side. And they can imagine the story—Saul encamped here; the Philistines had their camp there; and before our eyes, we watch the story come alive. That utterly delights us both—we get so much joy out of bringing somebody closer to the Word of God, and it's powerful."
President McDowell’s experience certainly demonstrated that. “While I would not say my faith was validated by this experience, my faith was certainly affirmed by all that we were able to take in,” he said. “To go to what Jesse Long likes to call, ‘the land of the Holy one,’ in the context of the LCU community was incredibly special. Experiencing the places and the stories with fellow believers and having the ability to compare reactions and share insights was remarkable. The humble expertise of Jesse and JoAnn Long, who have dedicated themselves to the ministry of scholarship, provided a depth of understanding that is, I think, unparalleled.”
“Jesse just comes to life, too,” added JoAnn. “I enjoy that, as his partner in life and crime—just seeing him come to life, because he so enjoys it. In leadership, when you can really find your sweet spot, it's so natural, it's not forced, and that’s how this is for him. And for me, walking beside those people hearing their stories, listening to what their ‘Aha!’ was in that moment, it all brings me so much joy. We’re just we're having a ball."
“Often, it’s sad—there's a letdown for me, I think, when it's over,” Jesse shared. “And yet, it's hard work. It's a relief, but it's a letdown.”
When asked how long they plan to continue leading groups through the holy land, Jesse and JoAnn both replied that they intend to continue for as long as they can. “We're going to keep going as long as the Lord gives us the health and strength to do so, and as long as it's good for LCU.”
The next scheduled trip will be from June 2-16, and will visit Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. “We're not going to spend as much time in Egypt as before,” Jesse explained, “since it turned out to be a little too much. We’ll still visit the pyramids, obviously, and we'll see the Sphinx. The Grand Egyptian Museum will be opening in November, and it has all the objects and so forth that were found in King Tutt’s tomb. We should be able to see that, along with another museum that has most of the royal mummies.”
The group will then head to Israel, where the group usually stops first in Joppa. “After that, we’ll head up to Caesarea, Nazareth, and then Galilee.”
“We often have LCU students on these trips, and we’ll unpack the experience with our students who join us,” Jesse shared, “and let them talk about what this has meant to them.” Jesse recalled that one of the Bible majors who joined them on a trip this past March gave a particularly impactful response. “He told us that the trip made all of it—the Bible, the stories, the people—more real.”
“I'll often say,” Jesse added, “for me as a Bible professor, as an archaeologist, and as a minister—I can’t imagine a better classroom.”
In 2022, the university established the Jesse C. Long, Jr. Endowed Chair of Biblical Text to honor Dr. Jesse Long for his tenure and leadership within the Alfred and Patricia Smith College of Biblical Studies. During his career, he served as faculty member, chair of the department, and dean of the college. Dr. Long was again recognized when he received the inaugural appointment to this chair named in his honor. Alfred and Patricia Smith, longtime friends and benefactors of the university, provided the generous funding for this endowed position. The establishment of this chair and inaugural appointment follows the 2019 creation of the James A. “Buddy” Davidson Charitable Foundation Chair in Youth and Family Ministry, which was the first endowed chair within the Smith College of Biblical Studies and is currently held by Dr. David Fraze.