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Seeing the excitement of Christian visitors to the Holy Land can help Israelis rekindle the warmth of their own attachment to the land.

June 1, 2016 20:52
3 minute read.
National Baptist Convention of America

Leaders from the National Baptist Convention of America visit the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews’ Neveh Michael Children’s Home in Pardes Hanna this week.. (photo credit: COURTESY IFCJ)

Last week, a handpicked group of 26 members of the Missionary Union of the National Baptist Convention of America conducted an educational mission to Israel. The African-American members of the NBCA, a predominately black church, came under the sponsorship of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews on a mission to help deepen Christian-Jewish ties and black leaders’ bonds with Israel.

The NBCA pilgrims are part of the Christian tourists who make up more than 50 percent of Israel’s annual visitors. More than 3.5 million people obtained tourist visas to Israel in 2013. The NBCA has about 3.5 million members in more than 8,000 churches. It is the third-largest African-American denomination in the United States after the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., and the Church of God in Christ.

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“Just being in Israel, in the Holy Land, and walking where Jesus walked, is incredibly inspiring,” says Barbara Wright, president of the senior women’s division of the NBCA, told JNS.org.

“My faith, as we interpret the scriptures, we identify with the people of Israel as God’s chosen people, and therefore we understand that those who bless Israel receive blessings, and those who curse Israel are really fighting against our culture and faith,” says A.W. Mays, an African-American Christian leader from Austin, Texas.

The IFCJ has been working for some 35 years to build bridges between Christians and Jews. Last year the fellowship raised $138 million in humanitarian aid for Jews in Israel and around the world, almost entirely from Christian donors.

As of the end of 2015, the overwhelming majority of tourists to Israel are not Jewish. They are not necessarily Baptists, either. India has become a major source of visitors. Indian Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahai declared in 2012: “Nearly every Indian wants to come and visit Jerusalem.”

In 2015, the Travel Agents Federation of India held its annual conference in Israel. Last year, some 40,000 Indians visited the country. The numbers are expected to grow by up to 20 percent annually.

But the Baptists have a special feeling for Israel.

“I think the African-Americans have had a similar life struggle in the US as the Jews and Palestinians,” says Rev. Samuel C. Tolbert, Jr., the NBCA president.

Rev. DeeDee Coleman of Oak Park, Michigan, heads a 1,500-member congregation and has been to Israel more than a dozen times.

“When I went to Israel the first time, it changed my life, because I can now hold the Bible in my hand and can preach it with a clearer focus, because I was on the ground and I have seen it for myself,” Coleman says.

Reality is the bottom line of such pilgrimages, beyond their welcome spiritual impact. Participants see the facts of a country they have been exposed to either through biblical narratives or the distortions of network news. Many participants acknowledge receiving a deeper knowledge of Israel’s political situation, and now being able to question the information they are fed back home.

“I learned to not believe the American media 100 percent, and their slant on what this nation is,” says Tolbert. “It is best for people to come and see it firsthand, and they will see a totally different view of Israel.”

“These are the ones who will bring back the message of Israel to the larger body,” says Rev. Coleman.

“They have been on Facebook, tweeting, and they will bring it back [to America] and educate their people about what is real.”

Seeing the excitement of Christian visitors to the Holy Land can help Israelis rekindle the warmth of their own attachment to the land, and especially to Jerusalem as we prepare to celebrate its reunification on Sunday. And, as the good reverend says, “The people of Israel don’t feel as alone when American Christians come and engage with what they are doing.”

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