By Lila Littlejohn
Special to The Signal
“But why not take a tour of the Holy Lands? It’s the opportunity of a lifetime!”
I couldn’t figure out why my sister, a longtime Christian who lived and breathed her convictions, wouldn’t jump at the chance to tour Israel. Yes, the 10-day trip cost a little more than $3,000, but it offered a plethora of opportunities to walk where Jesus walked and to visit the sites where Old and New Testament history were made.
Blatant commercialization, that’s why. My sister, Lucinda Baker, had researched the topic and found that visiting the Holy Lands could turn into less a walk of faith than an opportunity for aggressive souvenir hawkers. For pitchmen to claim Jesus was baptized exactly here in the Jordan River, only to be contradicted downstream by others who said no, the baptism occurred just here.
The May 19 issue of “Jerusalem Post” calls the past few years “Israel’s Golden Age of Tourism.” Tourist numbers were up 42% from 2016 to 2018, and 2019 promises to hit a new record: an estimated 4.7 million visitors, the Central Bureau of Statistics announced.
Israel’s 2018 revenue from tourism was estimated at about $5.9 billion, and the Israel Tourism Ministry has vowed to continue the upward trend in the number of visitors who arrive from all over the globe – and the money they spend while visiting.
How can a pilgrim find the peace necessary for a spiritual experience when hucksters squabble over what happened where? When tour buses jockey for position on the narrow roads outside the Temple Mount, worsening traffic jams?
Baker wasn’t the only one with concerns about how holy the Holy Land could be while serving as a tourism hub. Jane Denial, who with Baker is a member of the First Baptist Church of Downey, also said she was “put off by the commercialism.”
But, Denial said, her quest to side-step marketing frenzies was met at En Gedi Nature Reserve, an Israeli national park on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert – one of many stops on the March tour she and Baker took.
“The Lord said, ‘I have given you what you want,’” Denial reflected on the peace she found at the rugged park covering more than 5 square miles of land overlooking the Dead Sea. (It was to En Gedi that David fled to avoid a murderous King Saul [1 Samuel 24], and it was at En Gedi that David persuaded the king to spare his life.
For Brad and Janet Picchiottino, who joined the mostly Southern California-based church tour from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the spiritual highlight of the trip occurred atop Mount Carmel, site of the standoff between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18: 19-40).
“Just like in the song ‘These are the days of Elijah’ it says, ‘There is no God like Jehovah!’ we felt his power and presence at this place,” Janet Picchiottino wrote in an email. “There is no God like Jehovah! Praise him for allowing us to take this meaningful trip to the Holy Land.”
Eventually, 38 people came together for the March 12-21 Israel trip, coordinated by Madison Tours and Travel Inc. but officially hosted by Pastor Luke Chen of GC2 Church in San Diego and Pastor Richard Holt of the First Baptist Church of Palos Verdes in Rolling Hills Estates.
We started as two separate church groups of strangers (my sister decided I should join her if I was such an advocate of the tour), but over the course of the journey we became friends and prayer partners, each with individual spiritual experiences.
Madison Tours, one among many American tour companies with a Christian focus, has a unique approach: Owner/operator Sandy Richardson offers reduced-rate Holy Land tours for qualified, licensed pastors so they can experience it for themselves, learn what’s available and how it can be presented, and then return with their congregations for very personal tours with pastor-picked itineraries. Richardson said she’s been doing pastor tours for 25 years.
Chen and Holt took the tour in 2018 and returned with congregants in March 2019. Some members of the group headed home after 10 days; others extended their trips into Jordan.
Each tour group is accompanied by a bus driver and a guide, as required by Israel, Richardson said. The guides are educated in ancient architecture and various faiths, but they’re not necessarily Christians. Our main guide was a second-generation Israeli-born citizen and proud of it, but a different guide had to be hired for our excursion into Bethlehem, which is administered by the Palestinian Authority, and for those traveling on to Jordan.
‘Being there provides context,” Holt said in a phone interview after the tour. As an example he cited the Sermon on the Mount, delivered in a natural amphitheater on the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum, a stop on the tour.
“You look at the geography and it makes complete sense. (Jesus) just walked up the little valley” with a crowd following, Holt said. “You take from (the experience) what is really meaningful.”
“As a pastor who was teaching the Bible all my life, … now I could add to it the geographical context,” Chen agreed. “It made the Bible so much more vivid and alive with the context provided. I just wanted to do the same for the congregation.”
With their own Holy Land tour experience and help from the Madison website, Holt and Chen – along with musician Alan Ho from Chen’s GC2 church (named for Greatest Commandment and Great Commission) – were able to put together short lessons with songs to spiritually prepare tourists for their next destination as they rode buses to each site. The itinerary was rigorous, leaving many pilgrims falling exhausted into bed at each day’s end.
The Madison website https://www.madisontravel.com/ helped pastors prepare lessons by providing Bible verses to match each potential tour stop.
Booking with a Christian travel agency “helped us stay away from a lot of the commercialization,” Chen said in a phone interview.
Itinerary highlights among his congregants were a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and communion held at the Garden Tomb where Jesus was believed interred for three days before resurrection. Another was a visit to the House of Chaiapis in Jerusalem, where tradition holds Jesus was imprisoned in a cavern-like, pitch-black room the night before his crucifixion. Clutching candles, pilgrims descended to the room to sing and praise God.
The itinerary also retraced the Stations of the Cross trod by Jesus as he and others hauled his cross to his execution and interment.
“I do plan to do this again,” Chen said of the experience many say changed their lives. He said he appreciates Madison’s assistance in focusing tourists on the spiritual features of the tour.
The San Diego pastor looks forward to a visit to Bethlehem – including shepherds’ fields where the good news of Jesus’s birth was announced – rather than on souvenir shops and overcrowded churches.
“I would love next time to also add an Israeli tour guide who was really a messianic Jew or Christian,” he said. “It would be great (to have a guide) who knew more of the Bible.