Holy Land Pilgrimage
By Susan Shinn Turner
Over the past decade or so, Michael Connor has visited the Holy Land six times.But in March, he led his largest group yet — 26 members and friends of St. John’s. They came from the Salisbury community and from California, Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, and South Carolina.
“We had a lot of diversity,” Michael notes. Michael began planning the trip in 2018 — which was of course interrupted by Covid. He finally settled upon a date of March 2023, for a trip which would be based on three pillars — Pilgrimage, People (meeting with Palestinian Muslims and Christians and hearing the Jewish perspective), and Partnership (visiting with members of Christmas Lutheran Church and touring Dar Al Kalima University).
Pastor James Demmel served as co-leader. “I was eager to go,” he says. “I was assigned, but I was very willingly assigned. I love to travel, and I wanted to see the Biblical lands where the stories take place. I felt a powerful connection to the geography, to the land itself. We wanted to strengthen the connection between St. John’s and Christmas Lutheran, but I didn’t anticipate the impact the people would have on me. I was moved.”
Several years ago, a covenant between St. John’s and Christmas Lutheran was signed at St. John’s, and Pastor Munther Isaac was on hand. In March,
Pastor James and Munther signed that covenant in front of the Christmas Lutheran congregation. “I found it moving and special that Pastor Munther included Pastor James,” says Michael, who also signed the covenant. “It was a reminder of what we had already committed to.” It’s a covenant between two communities, not just between pastors, Michael says. “It was a nice milestone in our relationship.”
“It felt like a lot of responsibility to represent our congregation well,” Pastor James notes. “You have these pressure-filled moments, but you step into them and God shows up.”
Pastor James saw the wall surrounding Bethlehem. “I thought about how we are so blessed and fortunate to live in a country where we have freedom to speak and express our religion,” he says. “The world needs peace, and we are called to do that.”
A personal highlight for Pastor James was asking his girlfriend, Nicole Gonzalez, to marry him. He selected a secluded spot at the Church of the Beatitudes at sunset, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It’s a beautiful place, but it was also early in the trip, and that engagement ring was burning a hole in his pocket! “I thought the Mount of Beatitudes was particularly fitting because it was where the Sermon on the Mount took place, and included Jesus’ core teaching when he talks about love.”
The group even survived Michael’s “robust” schedule (“People aren’t paying to go over there to sleep!” he says) and tummy troubles at the end of the trip. “It was very fulfilling,” Pastor James says. “Our cup was flowing over, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It was such a rich experience that I’ll look back on the rest of my life.
Wayne and Jill Nelson have traveled extensively, but never to the Holy Land. The couple went on to Egypt after completing the extension to Petra. “Michael gave us a different perspective than what a local tour guide could,” Wayne notes.
Jill kept a detailed journal during the trip. She found it fascinating that, although she walked in the steps of Jesus, those steps were now covered by ornate churches. “It didn’t negate what I expected to see, but I had to process it differently,” she says. For her, the Sea of Galilee seemed to be the same place as it was in Jesus’ time.
Wayne says he didn’t expect the geography of Israel to be so varied, in elevation and climate change. They learned so much during both trips, he says. “Our guide in Egypt said that there isn’t a country in the Middle East that’s drawn its own borders,” Wayne says.
Gail Hounshell is a member of First Presbyterian and found out about the Palestine ministry when she heard Michael speak. She knows B.J. Connor from the memoir class they attend together at Trinity Oaks.
“When they were planning the trip, Mike and B.J. asked if I would be interested in going and I said yes,” Gail says.
Although she has traveled extensively, this was Gail’s first trip to the Holy Land. Some of the highlights for her were attending the service at Christmas Lutheran and having lunch with one of the families afterward in their home.
She also hand-carried a poster that the library at Dar Al Kalima had on its wish list. Since mail is not received there, visitors have created a “suitcase library.”
“I also loved seeing the sites,” Gail says, especially sites such as the Sea of Galilee, Church of Beatitudes, and Garden of Gethsemane which were less developed than other stops along the way. She was also moved by the dividing wall. “As long as those walls stand, how can two peoples live together?” she says.
Following the trip, Michael and Pastor James want to keep the ministry at the forefront of members’ minds. Some trip participants will be contributing devotions about their experiences which will be used during Pentecost. The partnership hopes to continue here this summer as 10 to 12 Palestinian youth will visit. “We’re praying for visa clearance,” Pastor James says.