Oklahomans in the Holy Land
The river. The garden. The desert. The sea. This January, 40 United Methodist clergy, spouses, and conference staff, including Bishop Jimmy Nunn, traveled from Oklahoma to Palestine and Israel to journey through the Holy Land.
Participants boarded their respective planes on January 8, arriving in Israel at what would be the middle of the night in Oklahoma. Victoria Lee, pastor of Charis Alive, felt like the tour was a reaffirmation of her call to ministry.
“The Holy Land tour has been a dream come true for me, a dream that was birthed more than 10 years ago,” Lee said.
Jay Smith, associate pastor at Edmond-New Covenant, said part of what drew him to the trip was the knowledge that many people who go find their faith enriched.
“I wanted to attend this trip because I know that it is a once in a life experience,” Smith said. “Through the conference and the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation, the cost was too good to pass up.”
Shannon Rodenberg, pastor at Fairland, said she had never been to the Holy Land, but now she wants to go back again.
“I had never been out of the country before, and it seemed like an amazing way to have my first international trip,” Rodenberg said. “I especially like the fact that I got to see so many things with my colleagues and to learn with and from them.”
The learning tour started with a visit to one of three possible sites where Jesus appeared to his disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. Over the next several days, participants also visited historic and holy sites such as the Herodium, Qumran, Jericho, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Magdala, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemene, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem), Mount Zion, the Pool of Bethesda, the Western Wall and the Dead Sea.
One of the tour’s most notable stops was the Jordan River, site of the baptism of Jesus. Bishop Nunn led a Remember Your Baptism service, and the following day, he preached during worship at the Church of Scotland. For Derrek Belase, these experiences were made all the more significant because they took place so close to the liturgical Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
“When you walk where Jesus walked and imagine what it must have been like for the people around him in those days, it is not hard for the scriptures to come alive,” Belase said. “I think that is what I always experience when I am there. The Bible that I’ve read, preached about and taught just looks and feels different after being where it happened.”
During the trip, participants toured several churches built on sites commemorating holy encounters, including the Church of the Nativity, the Church of the Primacy, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of St. Anne, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, and the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Smith said he didn’t realize how many holy sites had been enshrined.
“Most every place of significance has a place of worship built upon it,” Smith said. “Once I realized that this was the experience, I was able to experience the power of the place and moments and the beauty, sometimes fractured beauty, of our church history.”
One aspect of the journey Rodenberg was thankful for was the number of female clergy who participated in the trip. She said she didn’t know how many female clergy were on the trip until the women gathered to take a picture with Kristen Brown, a United Methodist missionary from Tahlequah serving in Palestine. Realizing there were more women in the picture than people taking the picture was special moment for her.
“There are not always a lot of spaces in which clergywomen are the majority,” Rodenberg said. “Women were the first to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. They served with him and were discipled by him, and now we share in his ministry and carry on the important work of the sisters who have gone before us.”
Lee said she appreciated touring the holy land with female clergy. She said some things, such as being able to offer each other feminine hygiene products, helped make the experience memorable.
“It has been a great blessing to tour with other female clergy,” Lee said. “I treasure the moments when we shared about our home recipes, juggling ministry with family life, stress eating, beauty tips, telling some funny stories—we had a blast!”
On the final day of the tour, participants visited the Garden Tomb, and Bishop Nunn held a communion service. Smith said the service reminded him of God’s call on his own life.
“I think my experience to the Holy Land is still one that I am unraveling,” Smith said. “There’s a depth and a nearness in my heart to the story that is new.”
Rodenberg said she experienced a sense of being “bound together by cords of love” during the final communion service. Lee said having a communion service as a final act of faith was an appropriate way to end the tour.
“As we celebrate Eucharist and sang some hymns, I felt a deep sense of unity in our group as one body in Christ,” Lee said. “Christ’s open table to all nations is a calling for us to love others beyond race, age, and gender; for we love because He loved us first.”