Bringing the scriptures to life

An interdenominational Christian group travels across Israel, building bridges between each other and with the Holy Land

Christian Tourists 521 (photo credit: Omer Eshel/Tourism Industry)
Christian Tourists 521
(photo credit: Omer Eshel/Tourism Industry)
"Could you imagine if they actually found the bones of Jesus?” Laurie Bauman, a Christian from Chicago asked over a plate of lo mein. She sat in the cafeteria at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. “All of Christianity would be in vain, it is the crux of our religion that he rose.”
It might seem an odd combination of conversation topic, location and food choice, but it seemed quite natural for Bauman, who was part of a unique interdenominational Christian trip to Israel in mid-January. The tour, the first of its kind, brought members of various Christian denominations – including Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists and Greek Orthodox – from around the Chicago area to the Holy Land. The trip was conceived and organized by Omer Eshel, the consul director of the Tourism Ministry in the American Midwest.
The selected representatives arrived on an all-expenses-paid 10-day trip as guests of the Tourism Ministry, to walk in the steps of the Bible and build connections with each other.
Eshel worked with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – the city’s first Jewish mayor, whose father was born in Israel – to realize his vision of uniting the vast number of different Christian communities. After receiving approval for funding and the cooperation of the various denominations, Eshel’s vision became a reality.
A year after he first dreamed up the trip, Eshel sat at the front of a tour bus with the 17 participants and teased the driver – coincidentally named Moses – that he performed the miracle of parting the snow in Jerusalem to allow the tour to continue.
According to Eshel, a 10-day trip for Christians is equally important as Israel’s investment in the Taglit- Birthright program for young Jews, which is jointly funded by private donors and the Israeli government.
To invest in a similar trip for Christians is more than just good advertising, Eshel said, “this is their birthright too.”
Christian tourism to Israel makes up close to 60 percent of the market, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, and already after a few days on the trip, many participants were speaking of organizing similar tours for their communities at home.
As he planned the trip, Eshel realized there was a lack of understanding within the Tourism Ministry of the varied Christian demographic.
“They didn’t know what a denomination was,” he said. “They were bringing Christian Evangelicals to the Via Dolorosa but not to the Garden Tomb or the City of David.”
The group of 17 are a mosaic of Chicagoland’s diverse Christian population. The participants represent the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Assemblies of God, the Seventh Day Adventists, the United Pentecostal Church International, the Anglican Church and the nondenominational church.
The itinerary Eshel planned was a whirlwind of biblical milestones, exposing the group to major sites of Christian importance, but also highlighting Israel’s rich culture, diversity and modern society.
“Before coming here, I thought everyone is just Israeli and Jewish,” said Clemente Moldanado, a representative of the Assemblies of God denomination. “I didn’t realize the mix of cultures, people and religions.”
During a walking tour through the City of David, the group continued to express awe at physically standing where the stories they’ve always read took place. Opening their Bibles to Psalms 121, they stood at the steps on the eastern side of the Temple Mount wall. In a unique convergence of faith, Eshel, a Jewish Israeli, sang the Psalms in Hebrew first, followed by the group in English, to the background of the Muslim call to prayer echoing over Jerusalem. The mix of faiths and peoples expressed in that moment left a resounding impression on the group.
Deacon Richard Hudzik, the Roman Catholic representative, walked alongside Carol Walters from the Archdiocese of Chicago and the two mused about how bringing together a diverse worshiping group has added to the experience. “It’s enriching to be challenged,” Hudzik said. “People are being respectful.”
Yet many members of the delegation shared feelings of apprehension of coming to Israel, especially following Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza last November. The country for them only had two points of reference: the Bible and newspaper headlines.
The group was confronted with both when it traveled to Bethlehem on day four of their visit. When they reached the border checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank, Eshel and the accompanying tour guide had to leave the group and a Palestinian-Christian guide continued on with them.
Bethlehem has been under Palestinian control since 1995 and Israelis are not allowed to enter without prior approval.
“We were shocked,” said Elder John Rapp of the Seventh Day Adventist denomination.“We didn’t understand why they couldn’t continue with us.”
Rapp said the group was unaware of the safety issues Eshel and the Israeli tour guide faced in the West Bank, especially the threat of kidnapping by terrorist groups. It was a moment on the trip that resonated with the group and left a very deep impression.
“It was clearly a different climate,” Rapp said in reference to the change in mood at Eshel’s departure.
Despite this, many were surprised at the level of safety and security they felt in Israel.
Pastor David Sagil joked that he is “in more danger [while] grabbing a hot dog outside the Sox stadium than coming to Israel.”
But Sagil wasn’t far off. Chicago has the unfortunate distinction of being named the “murder capital of the world,” with 504 murders in 2012, according to Chicago police. Henry Vance, the mayor’s personal adviser on religious affairs, who accompanied the trip, said that one of Emanuel’s goals is to galvanize the religious communities to engage their resources and make a difference in their communities. When the group returns to Chicago, they are scheduled to meet with the mayor to share their experiences and how they think a trip like this can ultimately benefit Chicago.
“Chicago regretfully is a segregated city,” said Vance. “The mayor has a vision to galvanize the religious community... Chicago is known as a city of neighborhoods and we need to build bridges between communities of faith.”
For Vance, the trip also fulfilled his lifelong dream to experience the scriptures himself. Standing at the northern wall along the Temple Mount, Henry opened his Bible to Acts 3:1 and began to read the story of Peter and John, confronted with the beggar at the gate to the temple: “Now Peter and John went up together into the Temple.”
Henry looked at his Bible, looked at the gate, saw a man to the side asking for alms. He had found himself truly walking in the steps of the Bible.
For all the participants in the group, the trip will leave a lasting impression.
“The biggest lesson is how little comprehension people in the US have of what it is here,” said Dr. George Koch from the Anglican Church. “It’s not palpable, they don’t know how profound and enormous it is.”