This story was originally published as part of the February 2022 edition of TMU’s alumni magazine. Read the full magazine here.
In November 2021, a group of students from The Master’s University climbed on a plane in Tel Aviv, Israel. They had reached the end of their semester in the University’s Israel Bible Extension program (IBEX), and they were on their way home.
But Zack and Christine Harris, and their three kids, stayed in Yad Hashmona. For the born-and-raised Californians, this was their first unrushed opportunity to absorb their new normal: life in Israel.
After participating in IBEX as students in 2015, Zack and Christine had longed to return to the land of the Bible and be involved with the program again. But they never guessed that they would return in 2021, with Zack hired to serve as associate director and student activities coordinator. Though the transition was a hectic process, they are now in a position to help give TMU students the experience they themselves enjoyed so much.
Both Zack and Christine came to TMU as biblical studies majors. And because there is no better place to study Scripture than in the land of Israel, they both went to IBEX. The experience, Zack says, was “awesome.”
“I think there are so many supposed cliches when it comes to IBEX,” he says. “People say, ‘The Bible is going to come alive,’ and, ‘You’re going to walk where Jesus walked.’ And those cliches are true.”
After returning from the three-month program, Zack relished studying a passage of Scripture and remembering standing in the spot where those events took place. “It just helps you to wrap your mind around the text and the truth behind the text,” he says.
Christine (maiden name Hartung) loved her experience that semester just as much.
“Every day was just a new opportunity to be amazed,” she says. “I had grown up in a solid church, and I was saved at a young age, but there was nothing like being in the land and seeing it for myself. It just provided that further validation of how God has preserved this land and His people. It’s incredible.”
Certainly, part of Zack and Christine’s fond memories of their semester at IBEX relate to being there together. They were already dating when they flew out for the program. They got married in May 2016, about a year after getting back. They graduated from TMU and started a family, and Zack began studying at The Master’s Seminary.
Life moved on from their time in Israel. But their hearts did not.
In 2020, five years after their semester in the land, they went on what they now call their “famous IBEX walk.”
“We were talking about the things we’d like to do in the future, after I finished seminary,” Zack says. “And eventually we were like, ‘Man, we would love to be back in Israel. We miss the land. We miss IBEX.’”
Zack finished seminary in the spring of 2021. And around that time, he received an invitation to meet with Dr. Mitch Hopewell, TMU’s provost. They met at Hopewell’s home and sat together in the backyard.
Zack remembers that Hopewell began the conversation by saying, “You know, Zack, sometimes the hardest decisions you make in life are the best.”
And then Hopewell said one word: “IBEX.”
“And I remember thinking, ‘No way. There’s no way,’” Zack says. “It was almost like in the movies, when the main character hears something crazy and his mind just switches to white noise. It was such an incredible thing to comprehend.”
Hopewell had invited Zack over to encourage him to apply for a new IBEX position: associate director and student activities coordinator.
From that moment on, for both Zack and Christine, there was no question of whether or not to pursue the opportunity; it was simply a question of how to make it happen.
“We knew that there were going to be a lot of obstacles to clear if we were going to get there in the fall,” Zack says. “We had to get passports and visas for everybody. I think I immediately downloaded a modern Hebrew app on my phone to start practicing. I didn’t even know if I would get the job yet, but we just hit the ground running.”
From a logistical perspective, one complication loomed over the others: Christine was pregnant. If they were really going to be in Israel in the fall, they would be traveling with a 10-week-old baby – a baby who would need a passport and a visa, just like their older two daughters, who were 3 and 1 at the time.
“That was just another aspect we were praying through and having to trust the Lord in,” Christine says.
At the same time, they were giving away most of their possessions, storing the rest, and wrapping up their apartment lease. And the whole time, they were doing it with the knowledge that the whole plan might fall through at any moment.
Zack says, “There were so many times in the process where it seemed like it just wasn’t possible that we would get over there. It seemed like the obstacles were too big. But each time that happened, the next day a door would open up, and we would decide to keep pushing.”
As they waited to receive their newborn Riley’s birth certificate – a necessary step before Riley could get a passport or visa – they had to keep pushing their visa appointment back until, eventually, it was scheduled for the day before their flight.
“Up until that appointment, they were saying, ‘We cannot let you into Israel,’” Christine says. “But Zack and I both had such peace about it. I remember that at one point over the summer, we were like, ‘Well, if this doesn’t happen, we have no things and no car. But we’ll be OK.’ We were just going to push forward until the door completely closed.”
Less than 24 hours before their flight, they finally received the go-ahead to enter Israel. They flew out and arrived only a few days before the students. And once the students landed, it was go-time for Zack.
“I oversaw everything from weekly chapels and Bible studies to activities like game nights, Jewish folk dancing and scavenger hunts in Jerusalem,” Zack says. “My job is primarily focused on discipleship, managing administrative tasks, and helping John Black, who is the on-the-ground IBEX director.”
Kate Gentry, a now-graduated biology major who was one of the 17 IBEX students that semester, emphasized how valuable Zack’s extracurricular activities were in the midst of an academically rigorous program.
“Things like that got our minds off how tired we were and gave us the opportunity to have fun together and build that family bond,” Gentry says.
Zack and Christine’s ministry of discipleship was also invaluable.
“They were really, really intentional about investing in relationships with each student,” Gentry says. “I had a lot of times where I was struggling, being tired and far from home, and they were just really awesome in coming alongside us. Because they understand it. They’ve just picked up their life and left to go on this crazy adventure to serve students and build up this program.”
These relationships, forged over the span of three months, made the closing of the semester especially bittersweet. “It was hard saying goodbye to Zack and Christine, knowing that they weren’t coming back home with us,” Gentry says. “But they’re doing a great work over there. I know that every single group that comes is going to love their family.”
The parting was hard for Zack and Christine, too; Christine recalls that they spent a few days “just moping around” after the students left. “It was so hard to see them leave,” she says. “We bonded with them so much.” But the fall semester also left Zack and Christine all the more grateful for the program and excited to welcome future groups of IBEX students.
Zack says, “It has made me way more thankful for the program and the people behind it, from the people today to the people like Todd Bolen, who have invested so much in this program in the past so that there would be a foundation to build on in the future.”
From IBEX’s first group in 1995, to Zack and Christine’s semester in 2015, to today, the investments made by those behind the program have paid great dividends in the lives of students.
In Gentry’s words, “Honestly, it was the best experience of my life.”
Learn more about TMU’s IBEX program here.
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