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Senior Sammy Roberts served as a fellow with Pas­sages Israel. Sammy Roberts | Courtesy

Before the oppor­tunity arose to apply for the Philos Project’s Pas­sages Israel trip, senior Sammy Roberts had never thought much about going to the Holy Land.

“I’m Catholic,” he said, “I should go to Rome!”

He was taking a class at the time with Pro­fessor of History Paul Rahe, who encouraged him to apply.

After taking the trip sophomore year, he later served as a fellow with the program, and most recently was accepted to the position of Director of Catholic Ini­tia­tives.

“First catching sight of the places that you have read about your whole life,” Roberts said, “you know, when you first see the sea of Galilee as you’re coming out of the Nazarene Hills, when you first see the old city of Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock, and you see all the old buildings, the clothes­lines hanging between buildings, and you can kind of smell the spice in the air in the streets — when  you come upon that for the first time, you realize, ‘I’m in this com­pletely crazy dif­ferent world, I’m in the place where God lived on Earth.”’

Roberts’ job is to revamp aspects of the trip to fit a Catholic angle. He will add oppor­tu­nities for daily mass, recount the history of holy sites from a Catholic per­spective, and add addi­tional loca­tions essential to the Catholic faith. Roberts is also respon­sible for building rela­tion­ships with Catholic schools and uni­ver­sities for future pil­grimages.

“I will also get to go to Israel three times a year,” Roberts said. “Getting to see the Holy City, which some Chris­tians go their whole lives without being able to see, is really special. It is a blessing beyond words.”

Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of English Patricia Bart, who has worked closely alongside Roberts during his time at Hillsdale, said she feels that Roberts has an intellect and per­son­ality poised for success in his work with Pas­sages.

“Pas­sages is very much about Chris­tians under­standing people in Israel and treating them with a deep respect, while still con­tinuing to treat their own views with respect,” Bart said. “Sammy is a natural at that.”

To date, Roberts has jour­neyed to the Holy City three times, first as a student, after which he was invited back to take a training course and return as a fellow. As a fellow, he led dis­cus­sions and acted as a tour guide for the group. Even as a fre­quent visitor, Jerusalem did not lose its allure or meaning. He said that the pil­grimages con­tributed to a spir­itual awak­ening he began to expe­rience his freshman year at Hillsdale.

“It is so easy for our faith to become an abstraction in the modern age, espe­cially in the age of the internet. It is very easy to become detached from reality,” Roberts said. “So, going and seeing these people and seeing this way of life and seeing the his­torical places is life changing. Because Chris­tianity and Judaism are incredible, in that they make claims that this hap­pened under Pontius Pilate in this place, and that Jesus was cru­cified, this is where it hap­pened. To be able to go there and think about this as a real thing is very trans­for­mative.”

Pro­fessor of History Kenneth Calvert attested to Roberts’ trans­for­mation over the past three years.

“Sammy is full of energy, a really kind and faithful guy, but I have seen def­inite growth in him terms of his focus and what he is called to do,” Calvert said. “Pas­sages has been a huge part of Sammy’s own intel­lectual and spir­itual growth. He was no longer plodding forward scatter shot, he was under­standing what he should do with his life.”

Pas­sages awoke Roberts to a com­ponent of Catholicism that he feels he, and the wider Catholic com­munity, has for­gotten about. Pas­sages keeps all of their trips focused on the idea of pil­grimage. Roberts explained that pil­grims used to be a crucial insti­tution to Catholicism, and most Catholics made at least one pil­grimage to the Holy Land during their life in order to “move beyond yourself to what God wants you to do.”

Catholics stopped making this journey when Israel was in a true state of turmoil. But Roberts said that, if nothing else, his work with Pas­sages has shown him that Israel is “not just Hamas, rockets, and IDF sol­diers all over the place.”

“Now that it is really safe over there, Chris­tians have the oppor­tunity to make this an insti­tution in western Chris­tianity again,” Roberts said. “There are people who still live there, who have lived there since the beginning of Chris­tianity, who still speak the aramaic that Jesus spoke. There are Muslims there too. It’s a shared place, and as much bad stuff as happens, as many imper­fec­tions as there are, in most of the country, people make it work. There are problems, but it is a fas­ci­nating place. This is where God touched Earth, and so the place matters.”