Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
After landing in Tel-Aviv on January 16, a group of 22 travelers from the Texas Annual Conference began a journey which promised to impact their lives and ministry in profound ways. These laity and young clergy, lead by Bishop Huie, traveled to Israel for, what turned out to be, a life-changing seven-day pilgrimage. Their stories bring this experience to life as they describe it eagerly and passionately below:
Rev. Christie Hale, FUMC Nacogdoches
We went to Caesarea by the sea and Megiddo then we went on to Tiberius where we stayed for three nights. From there we spent some time on the sea of Galilee. We took a boat across and got a feeling for the basic geography. We saw the traditional site of the sermon on the mount and we saw Capernaum. We went on to the site at Beit She'an which was a Roman city we did not know existed in ruins until 20 years ago. And they found almost an entire city that had been buried in an earthquake in - I want to say - the 600’s.
We got a really good understanding for the time in which Jesus and the Disciples would have been active in ministry in addition to visuals - both the physical geography and the imaginary ones based on the ruins and artist's renderings at the various sites. To be able to walk the streets of a Roman city and to understand that when Paul’s preaching about the Jews and the Gentiles what the differences are.
We went to Zippori and Nazareth, to Cana, Masada and Qumran. We went to the Dead Sea and then we spent three days in Jerusalem. While we were in Jerusalem we walked the Via Dolorosa and we visited Church of the Nativity, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the temple mount, the holocaust museum, the Mount of Olives, the Garden Tomb, the pools of Bethsaida and St. Catherine’s cathedral.
In the itinerary all it said was sing in St. Catherine’s cathedral. I had no idea what it was - obviously it’s not scriptural. I had no connection. Right outside of the cathedral is the healing pool at Bethsaida where Jesus told a crippled man to pick up his mat, to walk and he was healed. As we turned from the ruins there’s this beautiful cathedral. It's old, I want to say, 300 - not your typical gothic cathedral. Our guide, Mishi Neubach, told us it’s called St. Catherine’s because church tradition holds that Catherine was Mary’s mother and inside was a statue of Catherine holding a young Mary. Most of the statues we have are of Mary holding Jesus or a grown Mary.
As a mother, that was particularly touching because I have a young girl and to see that - mother and daughter touched something deep inside. I lit a candle and began to pray for my daughter and wisdom as her mother. The rest of the group had already moved into the main part of the nave and had begun to sing. I will never forget - it started alleluia and the way in which the architecture is designed you get a true echo. It’s not a diminishing echo, so when the group sings alleluia, immediately following is another alleluia and it sounds as if you are singing with the heavenly host. We pray it whenever we come to the table. We’re singing with the angels and archangels, but in that space, in that time - I could feel it. I can imagine a communion of saints that has sung in that sacred space singing with us in that time. So we sang a couple of songs and had some time of personal prayer just in the main part of the nave. We closed our time singing the doxology and the harmony and the echo – it moved me to tears. It was an incredibly moving experience and one that I will never forget for the rest of my life.
One of the things that struck me – I don’t think any of us can fully comprehend the effects and influence this trip will have for years to come. As we were walking the Via Dolorosa - it’s one thing to have the personal individual devotion as you’re hearing the scriptures and tracing the steps that Jesus walked, but it’s going to take on an entirely different meaning when we come to Good Friday as we’re reading those scriptures together in our respective congregations; or as we’re preparing for lent; or as we read the gospel that says all of those things that we traced. Then it’s going to take on a whole new meaning when we can actually say we know without a doubt that we walked the steps that Jesus walked and we will remember that day.
To be able to reflect with this group of pastors that we will continue to work with for the next 20 or 40 years is a gift. Perhaps we'll be sitting at a Board of Ordained Ministry meeting listening to the next generation of pastors talking about the Last Supper to be able to say: “Hey, Do you remember when we were in the upper room and we were talking about this and that the reflection time started in the evenings with the bishop?” It is just an amazing gift.
Rev. Jessica Lagrone, The Woodlands UMC
The garden of Gethsemane is my favorite place. The trees that are there in the garden on the Mount of Olives are ancient and some of them, the root systems date back 1700 years. You can look at the trees in this setting – they’ve kept the garden very natural and beautiful. Sights like that can help you think: “This is what Jesus was looking at the night that he was betrayed and arrested,” and “This is the kind of garden he was kneeling in.” That just holds a really special place for me because of that natural beauty. That and the Sea of Galilee has that same kind of: ‘I can imagine exactly what happened’ on this kind of space.
Devotionals happened on the road during the day depending on where we were. Different ones in our group had been assigned to different places to read the scripture from that site and give some words about what that site meant to them; or what that story in scripture meant to them and to help us grow deeper in that. Places like the Mount of Beatitudes where the Sermon on the Mount was delivered – we had a wonderful devotional there. On the sea of Galilee… the pool at Bethesda where Jesus healed the man - Places like that where we could stop and talk about the ancient story, but also - What does that mean for us today as Jesus here, present with us? Can we stop and pray for healing for those that we know need it?
Then in the evenings when we got back to our hotel we would have a little down time and then gather before dinner to process the events of the day. To say: “What was most meaningful to you today? Where were you challenged? What questions do you have?” That was really valuable because everyone processed it differently. Everyone had a different site that struck them in a different way. People were sharing ways they felt like they could take this experience back and use it in their ministry. It felt like we were really learning a lot from each other’s different perspectives because everyone sees it through different eyes and their experiences.
There’s just so much there. There’s just this land that is thousands and thousands of years old. There’s layers of civilization that were there. Some of the most meaningful to us are those that are from the first century where we can talk about what happened there when Jesus stood on that spot, but a lot of times the archaeological sites would go back thousands of years before Christ and they can say there were cities built right here. At one point at one site there was a place they said ‘if we dig into this site, there are 25 different civilizations that we find in this one spot.’ So for me one of the big takeaways I don’t think I expected to get was just how fleeting earthly civilizations are. There’s always another one coming along at some point to conquer one of them.
I guess my big surprising epiphany was just that I want to be part of the kingdom of God that isn’t just some lost archaeological site at some point – not a kingdom on Earth. And to be there with colleagues in ministry that we could really reflect on how we could further the kingdom of God through these experiences and think about Jesus’ lasting impact through his earthly ministry on that very spot.
Rev. Mark Welshimer, FUMC Houston
I’ve been preaching and talking about all this for years and I wanted opportunity to see it first hand – to walk where Jesus walked - where all these Biblical stories actually happened… It wasn’t really a sight-seeing trip. It was a pilgrimage.
Driving in to Jerusalem, the Bishop read Psalm 1:21. As we drove in, the very beginning of that Psalm is “Look into the hills. Where does my help come from?” and that reminded me of El Paso where I’m from. I remembered my Dad’s funeral service where he’s buried at - right at the foot of these beautiful mountains that I grew up with. As we were going in, it resonated with me that these people were afraid of going into Jerusalem and so they cried out to God for help.
I was amazed at all the people that surrounded us - at their devotion to prayer. At the western wall, some call it the wailing wall, people were crying and writing down notes and putting their prayers in the wall. People would pray at the wall for 30 minutes or hours at a time, and they would shake and move their bodies and they would go through cadences. But their devotion to God was amazing.
One thing that was amazing was our leader. I saw a confrontation – a beautiful little girl was standing at the panoramic view of the old city of Jerusalem and she was saying some Arabic prayers against Jews and against Christians. Mishi, our leader, went and said ok – we’re trying to move through here, he wasn’t saying “don’t do that.” This guy got in his face violently and our whole group was there watching this and Mishi diffused the situation, calmed him down and walked away. It seems like everything is very volatile over there. I was impressed with our leader and the stature of clergy – that everyone could take it in stride and that everyone was flexible and could grow in our own way. But it was so meaningful.
Having communion at the garden tomb gave a whole new fresh perspective - being right there and about new life and about dying to our sins and living for God. The Bishop served communion and it was amazing. We spent three days at the sea of Galilee in Tiberius learning where Jesus grew up and learning the land and seeing the fisherman… To be there and hear from people and see the dynamics, and to be able to pilgrimage and to be able to process this with other pastors – it was a good experience. It was the education of a lifetime.
Leah Taylor, Texas Conference Lay Leader
Tom and I have never been to the holy land… To go and be with mostly clergy, it was too good a chance to pass up. It was everything we hoped it would be and more.
I have always loved archaeology and antiquities. Some of the places where we were, they were doing excavations. There’s an area called Beth Shalom where they have excavated part of the city. You can see in the hill sides there’s so much more. To me that was just fascinating. Masada – the story of how the Jews held out against the Romans for 4 years in the desert at the top of this mountain and how they did that, and the story of how they chose to die at own hands rather than become Roman slaves was deeply touching.
We did a service of affirmation of our baptism at the Jordan river. The bishop did that and it was so cool. It was very early in the morning and was not crowded at all. In the area next to us a group of Korean Christians were doing baptism by immersion. It was an interesting juxtaposition of us doing our re-affirmation.
We spent the last of the time in and around Jerusalem doing all of the traditional sights where Jesus lived out the final weeks of his life. Our Jewish bus driver and tour guide were not allowed into Bethlehem, so we had to stop and change buses and drivers and guides and then go to the Church of the Nativity – which in and of itself was an overwhelmingly spiritual experience. We did a short service in part of the church which was really neat but it was also troubling to see holy sights of Christianity and then there’s a mosque right across the square and to know the people we spent time with couldn’t even come into the area. It is in Israel, but was in the Palestinian controlled zone – that was a little sad.
Intellectually, I’ve always known how small Israel is and how real the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is .I guess I had never really appreciated the daily conflict they are living through there. I came home with a real appreciation of the stress and strain that’s a part of their daily lives. It’s not anything that equates to anything that I’ve ever experienced in my life.
I’m not sure if we had gone in just a tour group we would have ever experienced anything like that. I think both Tom and I felt really privileged to be a part of that. It was a great experience – I’d go again in a second.
Rev. Stacy Pell, Staff Chaplain - The Methodist Hospital
The Garden tomb was a significant spot for me. I read the scripture – the burial of Jesus story out of Luke while we were there at the garden tomb, and reading that story - just how the words off of the page came alive in such a different way because it was so descriptive. I remember one of the lines talking about how Peter ran to the tomb and stooped in to look inside and we had just visited the tomb and we literally did have to stoop in to go in to look inside the tomb and realizing how descriptive our scriptures are. How I’ve often overlooked so many of the details - that was a powerful moment encountering God’s word in a different way.
Bishop Huie had selected several different spots throughout our time together to have times of worship, so there were moments like, in the garden of Gethsemane we talked about what it was like to surrender – that was a time of good reflection. I remember another devotional we had at St. Anne’s church in the old city where the healing pools of Bethesda are there next to the church and how Bishop Huie called us to think about the places in our life that were in need of healing and how we are all broken people living in a broken world seeking healing, and after 38 years Jesus healed a man at the pool of Bethesda and the hope that comes with that after living with such brokenness for so long. Those times of worship were very meaningful for me.
There were little things along the way, like when we first got to the sea of Galilee I was surprised to see how small it was. You could pretty much see the whole lake, if you will, and the mountains that surround it. So, I think - in general, the size of everything being so small. Being from Texas I think we’re just used to things being so huge and vast and taking forever to get to places. But we got to places so quickly so you could more easily see how, in scripture, when Jesus travelled to different places how it’s far to be walking, obviously in those days, but everything was a lot closer than I had expected.
I’ve reflected on this a lot since I’ve been back – I’m not a preaching pastor. I’ve always seen my position as a hospital chaplain as being a person that can sit with those who are sick and suffering and those that are dying and my hope is my presence is a real tangible representation of God’s compassion and God’s love for his people. Being in Israel and being reminded that Jesus was a real person who came to live with us here on earth - I always believed that. But being there and touching the ground and seeing things and walking in some of the same places that Jesus would have walked helped me grasp at a deeper level. God with us, that Jesus came in human form and walked here on the earth with us. And now that I have a deeper kind of knowing of that deep within myself, it helps me try and be more present and allow myself to kind of be in a position here in the hospital where I am a real and tangible expression of God’s love and compassion for the people here in the hospital.
Rev. Katy Ware, Trinity UMC - Beaumont
We had a really powerful service of a reaffirmation of our baptism at the Jordan river – it was a really special time with the group reflecting on our lives and our ministry together and how that all began with our baptism, so we affirm it there where Jesus had been baptized. It was a powerful ceremony.
I was very moved by the level of devotion people there had to their faith – whether that was the Jewish faith or the Christian faith or Muslim. They were very committed to the ritual and the practices of their faith and you saw that everywhere we went. Even though there’s a lot of strife and unrest because of things that people are doing in the name of their faith it was actually very moving to see people so committed.
A moving moment for me was the wailing wall – the western wall at the temple mount and the people were praying there very sincerely and everywhere we went – you felt very connected to the saints; very connected to our Christian brothers and sisters and Jewish brothers and sisters from all around the world. Everywhere we went there weren’t just locals – it was people from all over the world visiting these sites and praying there and touching the same things you’re touching. Right before we went church of the Holy Sepulcher, we walked through a worship service of a group of Ethiopians. It was so moving to see them singing praises in their own language and just knowing that we were all there to see the same things.
The best way to put it is I felt very connected to the body of Christ at these places and that was more because of the people than the actual physical places. I enjoyed the people probably the best. As far as sites, I think the most awing to me – and maybe that’s because its so high on the mountain and overlooks the Dead Sea – Masada. It was just an amazing experience to be on top of that mountain and be in the midst of where that story took place. But each place we went it was the connection to that group, and the devotions we shared, and the transformation I feel that God was doing within us - within our group going on this pilgrimage together.
Upon my return, my reflection – I keep going through the pictures and trying to fill in blanks for the things I didn’t get a chance to write down. I just have this overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunity, and that gratitude is ultimately aimed toward God because I just feel so blessed to be able to do it. That was part of my connection to the reaffirmation service that we had – that I have such gratitude to be in ministry with the people I was with, with the people back home, with the church international and have leadership in place that make this possible.
Rev. Josh Hale, Perritte Memorial UMC - Nacogdoches
I think a lot of times when we read the Bible we’ll read one story or we’ll read a group of stories… and we’ll say: ‘Ok – it’s part of this story, but its relatively isolated from everything else that happens in the Bible.’ We’re only focused on that one narrative.
One of the things I really began to realize is how interconnected going from a site from Roman times to a site that was maybe an archaeological dig that covered thousands of years and then going on to talk about Jesus. Well you might think – “what do those other two archaeological sites have to do with Jesus’ time?” Well, everything. They have to do with why Jesus found that important or why this group of people lived in this particular location – because that narrative that you read in the Bible is not isolated anymore. You can stand here and you can see ten miles away and that’s where these other things happened. I really began to get why Jesus based his ministry out of Galilee. I really began to see why the archaeological site from King Herod’s time from Caesarea by the sea was really an important thing to change the landscape in terms of how everybody’s lives were affected in that area. It was a major change! You didn’t have to travel by land, by this particular route which has been travelled for thousands of years. Now you stop here – you get in the boat and you went over here. That starts to make Paul’s journeys make more sense now. That starts to make the sense of why these things are important so that when you get to the story of Jesus’ time and the disciples you begin to see this is the kind of things they were up against.
So we know kind of a lot now about how Jesus travelled – what the Disciples were up to when they were fishing and all those kinds of things. Why would Jesus have picked those folks? Why would Jesus have picked a fishing town in the middle of nowhere? Well, we begin to see why. It wasn’t really a backwater. It was off the main road. It was closely adjacent to important metropolitan areas of the time and later on. It wasn’t so much we’re talking about we’re in the back woods of East Texas or anything. No – you’re right on Interstate 45 – right on 59 and this is an important place where people traveled. And I think that begins to give you a little bit of perspective.
I found a lot really meaningful in terms of spiritually connecting me. I gave the first devotional on the trip which was on the boat in the Sea of Galilee which I found to be an incredibly moving experience for me spiritually.
I think [the trip] profoundly changed how I read and understand and now that I’m back in the pulpit - back in my church - how I’m sharing the story of that. It has generated a lot of interest among my church members and we spend a lot of time talking about it, but it was very present in my sermon on Sunday because I’ve been to Capernaum. The lectionary text on Sunday is on Mark chapter 1 about Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum and healing somebody who has been possessed. Here is an immediate connection between where I was a week ago and where I am today. And I just think you cannot overstate the importance of actually being in those places.
I think one of the things you don’t get a good sense of is in terms of the scale and the intimacy of all these places. You can’t throw a rock without hitting some place that’s mentioned in the Bible at least once. Everywhere there’s something important. If it’s remote, somebody went there because they were fleeing this king or this particular event. If you’re on a major road or somewhere that’s in a major city there’s dozens of places you could go. I think the thing for me is I was surprised. I’ve studied all this kind of stuff in college and seminary about how small Israel is but you really start to get a hands on familiarity with that sense of interconnection.
There’s a reason why pilgrimage is such an important part of our Christian history and I think we definitely got a sense of that.