The purple bus was nearly at capacity with 47 passengers when we rolled into the Tel Aviv airport. In a similar way, our hearts and minds were full. Old friendships had been enriched and new friendships had been forged over the course of the past two weeks. We hugged and shared goodbyes, knowing that as we returned home, we did so as changed people.
Students for this Fall session (Oct 27-Nov 8) at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies came from at least three states and from several churches. Cores were drawn from First Christian Church in Springfield, Ohio, and Journey Christian Church in Apopka, Florida. Pastor-representatives Craig Grammer and Anita Burns provided solid leadership and contributed to the teaching task.
For a majority of the group, this exploration of the lands of Bible began in Jordan. The "spice center" of Petra was on a bucket-list for many and it did not disappoint. I met this lead group at the Jordan River and escorted them to Bethlehem. A second wave of travelers arrived at the Tel Aviv airport and made their way to the hotel. Over dinner that night, near to the place where Christ was born, we pressed the two groups together and began the process of coalescing as a team.
In Israel-Palestine the program was launched in Bethlehem. Forays were taken to Jericho, Qumran, and the Dead Sea on one day. On another day, we traveled deeper south and visited the site of Masada. Bethlehem was not overlooked; we walked through the Shepherds' Fields and the traditional site of the birth of Jesus.
A special experience that many enjoyed in Bethlehem was dinner with local Palestinian Christians. Our hosts met us at the hotel and took small groups of three or four travelers to their homes for an evening of family, stories, food, and Arab hospitality. Conversations sparked by this experience of local life "behind the walls" continued on the bus for days!
Leaving Bethlehem, we moved by bus up the coast, stopping at Caesarea-by-the-Sea for a look at this magnificently preserved Roman city.
By evening we were in our hotel by the Sea of Galilee. There we discovered that a bicycle race on the following morning would close much of Tiberias as well as other regional roads. Scrambling, we adjusted the itinerary and instead headed upland, visiting the boyhood home of Jesus in Nazareth and the ruins of the Galilean capital, Sepphoris. On the following day we picked up stops unreachable the day before: sites remembering Jesus' feeding miracles, his restoration of Peter, and his ministry center at Capernaum. Of course, no trip to Galilee would be complete without a boat ride across the sea. We did that too and enjoyed Craig's teaching on the water.
Dining in style!
The last segment of the journey took us through the sites of central Palestine (Dothan, Samaria, Shechem) to reach Jerusalem. There we engaged the hustle and bustle of a city that is perhaps the most iconic of the Middle East. Biblical memories linger in these stones. These were triggered as we walked the Via Dolorosa, touched the Western Wall, and climbed the stairs that Jesus and early Christians may have climbed as they made their way to the Temple.
Highlights of our last day included a visit to Ein Kerem, a town associated with the birthplace of John the Baptist. There Anita shared from her heart and helped us appreciate the meeting place of Mary and Elizabeth. We sensed the excitement of the moment, knowing that through this engagement of time and place, we were near the spot where the great rescue-plan of God was initiated. This convergence of head and heart, intellect and emotion, made the value of such a journey worth the discomfort of international travel.
And to be sure, the trip was not without its discomforts. High season for tourists meant long lines and clogged traffic. The transatlantic flight was not easy. Food was not like home. Unexpected closures forced program adjustments. Still, our learners were resilient and flexible and took away memories of the experience that they will treasure for a lifetime. As a result of this team effort, they will never read the Bible in the same way again.