In the footsteps of Jesus: Local group makes pilgrimage to Holy Land
WORTHINGTON -- While floating in a boat on the sea of Galilee, they envisioned the sight of Jesus walking on water.
They collected rocks from the Valley of Elah, the place where David slew Goliath.
In the waters of the Jordan River, they were baptized.
They prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.
A group of 22 pilgrims -- most from the local area -- recently returned from their sojourn to the Holy Land and are still basking in the memories they collected there. Hosted by Solid Rock Assembly Pastor Scott Peterson and his wife, Deb, the "Foundations of Faith" Tour encompassed 10 days of visiting prominent biblical sites.
"I went there three years ago on a fam -- familiarization -- tour with 12 ministers from across the United States," explained Scott Peterson. "I just wanted to go, because I had always wanted to go, but I never thought about taking a tour group. But I thought this would be a powerful experience for all Christians to come to their roots, to experience this. I thought about it quite a while, and eventually made the plans to take a group back to Israel."
Deb Peterson wasn't about to let her husband go for a second time without her, and the Petersons extended the invitation to their congregation and other interested people from outside their church. In Chicago, they boarded their Turkish Airline jet with a group of 22 representing four denominations -- most from Worthington, along with a few others who have ties to the local community. Another clergy member, the Rev. Irwin Van Leeuwen from Worthington's American Reformed Church and his wife, Helen, were also part of the group. For everyone but Scott Peterson, it was a first Holy Land experience.
"I think they should require every seminary student to go," said Van Leeuwen, lamenting that he hadn't made the trip earlier in his career. "You sure get a different perspective. The Bible comes alive."
Although they traveled as a group, "everybody's experience was a little different," said Deb Peterson.
For Don Groninga, the trip was something he'd been considering for about a decade.
"To walk where Jesus walked, and put it into some sort of visual," he explained about his desire to see the Holy Land. "Before, it was black and white, and now it's Technicolor."
Through their biblical studies, each of the travelers had some preconceived notions about what they would see and experience, and in many cases, reality was much different than expectations.
"You expect it to be like Bible time, and it's not," said Lori Nau, who traveled with husband Doug.
"It's a little commercialized now," added Deb Peterson wryly.
During the planning phases of the trip, there had been some concerns about safety while traveling in the Middle East, but the travelers felt those concerns were unfounded, at least in their experience. They credit their tour guide through Holy Lands Sun Tours (Isramworld) with enlightening them not only on the biblical sites they visited, but also on the political climate of the region.
"The day we started touring was the day after their election, so it was all very current to him," said Van Leeuwen.
"When you read the Bible, you don't think about all the political stuff that was going on, even back then," noted Lori Nau.
The continuing strife between Jews and Muslims was highlighted during their visit to Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem.
"Our guide was Jewish, and he wasn't allowed to go in there," explained Scott Peterson. "So we had to change guides to one who was Palestinian Christian."
Each member of the group had done his or her homework before their departure.
"The most meaningful part of the trip for my wife and I was that Scott had us prepare stuff from the different places where we were going to go," said Van Leeuwen, explaining that they were each assigned a biblical reading that pertained to the various sites. "I still get goosebumps when I think about being on the Sea of Galilee, having them shut the motor off on the boat, and hearing the story about how Jesus walked on the water."
"I read my scripture in the Garden of Gethsemane," said Mary Ann Sieverding. "I wanted to do that one, was drawn to it. You could just imagine what it was like for Jesus when he went off to pray and came back and found his disciples asleep. 'Why can't you stay awake?'"
A special souvenir for some of the travelers was a container of water from the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized and they followed suit. There are actually two designated baptism sites, explained Scott Peterson. The more accessible site is known not to be authentic. The group was able to visit a second site that has more validity as a spot where John the Baptist might have done his ministry.
"We had to drive through minefields on either side of us," to get to the river, said Deb Peterson. "There was an armed guard on the Jordan side of the river as we were being baptized."
"It was amazing how narrow the river is, too," said Lori Nau, "and how dirty it was."
Seashells and rocks were also popular take-aways from the places they visited.
"My 4-year-old grandson wanted a rock like David would have used to kill Goliath. I'm sure it came out of a Sunday school lesson," said Van Leeuwen. "So I brought back a big bag of rocks and let him pick out the one he wanted."
The travelers shared that they bonded and became like a family unit during the trip, and they all returned home feeling changed by what they experienced.
"Since we've been back, I've been dreaming about the places that we were at in Israel," said Doug Nau.
Groninga said he has taken a lot of vacations, but none has impacted him like this one.
"I will remember this one, and who was along on the trip," he said.
"From a pastor's perspective, this has me more excited to tell people the truth of the Word," said Van Leeuwen. "It renewed in me a burning desire to get the Word out. One of the things that strengthened my faith and renewed my faith was that each site that we visited had a ritual bath, and I am so glad that I have a Savior that cleansed me once -- knowing what Christ did that for us."
"This was not a sightseeing tour," said Scott Peterson. "It was a pilgrimage."
Members of the tour group will share more about their trip at 7 p.m. Sunday at Solid Rock Assembly, 1730 Diagonal Road.