Not one but two groups with St. John’s ties toured the Holy Land in January. The two groups met for a time of fellowship on Jan. 10 at the Angel Hotel in Bethlehem, then worshipped together on Jan. 11 at Christmas Lutheran Church.
Christmas Lutheran Church and its pastor, Dr. Mitri Raheb, are among St. John’s global mission partners. Bishop Leonard Bolick delivered the sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday.
The first trip was led by Dr. Monte Luker, professor of Hebrew Studies at the School of Theology of Lenoir-Rhyne University at Lutheran Theological Seminary. This trip took place Jan. 1-13, and visited Galilee, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and was hosted by Bishop Leonard Bolick and the Rev. Beth Kearney. Other St. John’s members of this trip, which provided an educational overview of the Holy Land, were Rita Bolick, the Rev. Doug Kearney, Adrienne Martin and Susan Shinn.
The second trip was led by Mike and B.J. Connor, and took place Jan. 9-18. It visited Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and focused on the ministries of Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a group that raises funds for programs of Christmas Lutheran Church. Other St. John’s members of this trip were Roger and Linda Hull, Mark Ritchie, and Eric and Catherine Soderberg. Also in this group was Wade Rouzer, a former St. John’s member who works at St. James Lutheran, Concord.
The trips proved insightful and impactful for both groups.
“It’s just meaningful for people to know they’re walking where Jesus walked,” Bolick says, “to get a feel for how he was living in that particular time. Some of the stones we walked on were stones that Jesus walked on.”
It was not a trip or vacation, Leonard explains, but a pilgrimage. This was the fourth trip to the Holy Land for Leonard, who finishes his time as bishop this summer.
“I’m just really enjoying things day to day,” he says. “I enjoyed the trip for what it was. It was so wonderful to worship at Christmas Lutheran. It’s always an honor to preach anywhere.”
For pastors, the trip was especially helpful to see the land itself, Doug says. “It really did make a big difference to see the Mount of Olives and the temple grounds just a short distance away. Seminarian Bobby Morris talked about the Good Samaritan and how narrow that road actually was. Those kinds of things help you see scripture in a new way. Personally, being on a pilgrimage and being part of a legacy of people who
did the same thing soon after Jesus died was very moving and important to me.”
Doug says he’s often heard the land called “The Fifth Gospel.”
“Before the trip, it wouldn’t have made sense to me, but it does now,” he says.
Linda and Roger Hull both enjoyed spending time with “the living stones,” the Palestinians who live in Bethlehem.
“The three chefs who were here in Salisbury took us out one night with their wives and children, to a restaurant at the highest point of Bethlehem,” Roger says. “They fed us well.”
“It was just very delightful,” Linda says. “We met the senior ladies in the program at Diyar. They showed us beautiful scarves and table runners. They told us their stories.”
She adds, “Walking on the streets where Jesus walked meant something to me. I felt the same thing at the Sea of Galilee.”
Mark says he felt more of a spiritual connection at the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Shepherd’s Field, versus the ornate environment of the holy sites both groups visited.
Along with both groups, he also learned more about the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. “I was glad to get a first-hand experience of that.”
Debbie Martin encouraged daughter Adrienne to take this trip.
“She’s going to spend the next 30 years preaching the Gospel,” Debbie says. “I thought if she could see it and feel it, there would be passion in her theological understanding.”
Debbie says that she and her husband, the Rev. David Martin, who died last year, never had the chance to visit the Holy Land, which made it even more important that their daughter go.
“It expanded my view of scripture,” Adrienne says. “The geography is so much more meaningful to me. It piqued my interest for the geography and layout of the Holy Land. I believe it will have a lifelong effect on my preaching. My heart has been changed by visiting the Holy Land. It really did feel holy.”