Holy Land pilgrimage brings Bible to life

by Captain Blake Fewell

For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have made pilgrimages to Israel to experience the places where Jesus walked, taught and healed. Earlier this year 80 Salvationists from the Central Territory joined that heritage to the Holy Land. For some, it was their first opportunity to see the Bible come to life in the sites and experiences of Israel. For others, it was an opportunity to rediscover and rekindle previous experiences.

Over the eight-day trip, Salvationists clad in their khaki vests stood on the roads of Roman ruins, sat on the Galilean hillsides, and walked the limestone streets of Jerusalem. Throughout the tour, local guides provided historical, geographical and archeological insights, while guests Lt. Colonel Vern Jewett and Lt. Colonel John Needham provided biblical teaching each day.

The Salvationist pilgrims began their journey on the northern Mediterranean coast and the Sea of Galilee region. They visited Mount Carmel where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth and many northern cities where Jesus ministered. These cities, which contained ruins from the times of Jesus, gave a glimpse into the daily life of work and worship.

The group held their first of several worship times on the Mount of Beatitudes where choruses rang out from the hillside, and Colonel Jewett brought Jesus’ words of joyful promise to life. Later that day, they worshipped on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, remembering the many hours Jesus and His disciples spent on those waters.

Making their way south, they visited places such as the spring where Gideon’s army was thinned out, the Bethlehem field where the angels visited the shepherds, and the Church of the Nativity, which is believed to be on top of where Jesus was born.

The travels culminated with a stay in Jerusalem, the religious hub of Israel. From here, the group visited numerous holy sites and traveled to nearby cities in the Dead Sea region.

The first day in Jerusalem focused on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The Salvationists toured the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of two possible sites of calvary and Jesus’ tomb. This site is located toward the end of the Via Dolorosa, the path on which Jesus carried His cross. As the group traveled the limestone roads, they reflected on His sorrowful journey to calvary. The day concluded at the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane where Colonel Needham led a time of worship and teaching in the place where Jesus prayed before His arrest, trial and execution.

The next day focused on many historical and archaeological sites, including the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed a lame man; the City of David, a series of ongoing excavations outside the Temple Mount where King David’s palace was built; and Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a tunnel which provided and protected the major water source for Jerusalem. Several Salvationists braved the journey through the dark tunnel, wading through the knee-high waters before exiting at the Pool of Siloam. The day
concluded with a stark reminder that Jewish persecution is not a distant history. The group visited Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum, to learn, reflect and pray.

While the weather was beautiful for most of the trip, the day in the desert was unique. Instead of experiencing the hot Judean desert, rain brought fast-flowing streams to life in the valleys. A few visits were cut short, but the group was able to experience some of the desert’s wonders, including Qumran, the Jordan River, Jericho and the Dead Sea.

The final day brought vast experiences. Returning to Jerusalem, the pilgrims again turned their attention to Jesus’ sacrifice by visiting the house of Caiaphas and a site where Jesus was likely imprisoned before His death. They held their final worship service at a place called the garden tomb the second possible site where Jesus may have been crucified and buried. As each person entered the tomb, what they saw was no surprise: the tomb was empty. “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow,” rang throughout the garden by Salvationists in song.

For many, the trip provided profound experiences. Soldier Yvonne Mongeau shared, “My intimate relationship with Jesus has become even closer.” Captain Karla Salsbury’s most memorable experience was at the Western Wall. “It was a sweet time of reflection and deep surrender as I drew near to God in that place,” she shared. For Captain Rachel White, it was at the Pool of Bethesda. “There was a church there, and our group sang ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus; There’s just something about that name.’ As we sang, the line hit me: ‘Kings and kingdoms will all pass away, but there’s something about that name.’ Kingdoms do rise and fall—especially in this area— but the name of Jesus will never pass away.”