The last day in Israel was one of devotion for travelers with the Campbell University Divinity School and Nurturing Faith Experiences study tour of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.
We began the day on a long and winding road that we don’t usually take. Because Mr. Trump was in town and wanted a photo-op in Bethlehem, the road we would normally take from our hotel (between Jerusalem and Bethlehem) was closed. As a result, we had to take a circuitous route through poor and crowded Arab villages that our driver Mike was familiar with — but
Doron, our guide who has been in the business for 40 years, said “I’ve never been here in my life.” As usual, Mike was a wizard at weaving the big bus through streets that would make most Honda drivers nervous.
Our goal was the Garden Tomb, where we had a nice cool morning to experience the well-kept flower gardens, take a look at Gordon’s Calvary (which bears a crumbling image that favors a skull), and enter an empty tomb that some believe would have been the place where Jesus lay.
Michael Sizemore led us in a devotion there, while Andrew and Mary Needham administered a service of communion.
From the Garden Tomb we walked through the Damascus gate and the Moslem quarter to the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a man who had been lame for many years (John 5).
Next to the pool is St. Anne’s, a church built by the Crusaders and famed for its amazing acoustics. Anna Moxley led our devotion, as well as a time of singing in the church.
Next on our itinerary was Ecce Homo, located where the Antonia Fortress once guarded the northwest corner of the Temple Mount. Excavations there have uncovered a Roman street from the first century. Some people believe it could have been the place where Jesus was tried before Pilate and abused by the Roman soldiers. We paused again for devotion, led by Timothy Williams, and to walk on the street where Jesus may have taken up his cross and begun the long walk to Golgotha.
After a quick lunch of falafel, shwarma, or pizza at Basti’s, we walked through the Arab market – bustling with activity after being deserted the day before – on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which has the longest tradition of two sites contending as the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, which the gospels record as being close together. Both a rocky hill (now under glass and gold) and what is said to be a former cave tomb (now surrounded by a blocky stone structure flanked by 15-foot golden candlesticks) are beneath the same extended roof of a massive edifice shared by six faiths (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic, and Syrian churches) that often squabble over what each considers its turf. For the first time in my experience the line of people wanting to enter the tomb was short enough for us to enter – with only a half hour wait. There wasn’t much to see, but I can report that it was indeed empty.
What remained was some free time for shopping in the Jewish and Arab markets or exploring the area.
Once we knew that Air Force One had left for the Vatican and the roads were open, we walked back to through the markets to the Damascus gate and the Garden Tomb, where we met our bus for a relaxing ride to Joppa, called Yafo in Hebrew and considered a part of Tel Aviv. On the way, David Brantley, who had been sick and unable to travel when we visited Jericho, led us in a thought-provoking devotion about the story of Joshua and the Israelites defeating that city.
In Joppa we enjoyed a delicious farewell dinner in a dockside restaurant called Hazaqen vehayam (Hebrew for “The Old Man and the Sea”), where the waiters entertained us by carrying prodigious stacks of dishes or glasses while cleaning up the tables.
We arrived at the airport with time enough to make it through multiple security checks before departing for home on a flight beginning at 11:10 p.m. (Israeli time) and arriving 11 hours later in New Jersey at shortly after 4:00 a.m. So far as I know, all made their connections and reached home safely.
I am grateful to all who participated in the trip and were very cooperative. In addition to students and friends of Campbell University Divinity School, we were joined by supporters of Nurturing Faith Journal and Bible Studies. We are grateful to all who prayed for us and expressed interest in those who joined us for what was a tiring but truly faith nurturing experience. Our hope is to offer a trip built around a dig in Israel next summer, and another more traditional tour in May 2019. If the Holy Land is on your bucket list, start planning now, and watch this site (along with divinity.campbell.edu and nurturingfaith.net) for details.