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Following in the path of Jesus: Local group returns from trip to Israel

A group from the Maranatha Tabernacle of Unicoi is pictured in front of the Menorah, the national symbol of Israel, at the Knesset building in Jerusalem. (Contributed photo)

By Kendal Groner

Twenty-six members of the Maranatha Tabernacle of Unicoi recently returned from an inspiring and memorable trip that allowed them to visit an array of biblical and historical sites while getting a taste of the area’s rich culture.

The group visited Israel from May 9-15, a historic time considering President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The embassy officially opened on May 14, the day of Israeli independence.

“There is no place in the world like the nation of Israel,” said Mike Pinner, member of Maranatha Tabernacle of Unicoi and organizer of the trip. “Right when you get off at the airport and walk out that door, you know you are somewhere unique.”

E.L. Wheeler and his wife, Queenie, started the Maranatha Tabernacle in downtown Erwin in 1986, and although Wheeler said he had dreamt of visiting Israel for many years, for one reason or another it never seemed to work out in the past.

“I just had kind of given up on it, but it was number one on my bucket list, and last year they did a pastor appreciation day, and in the presentation, they had put up on the screen that we were going to Israel,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler thought it was simply going to be a slideshow of pictures that virtually took the viewers to Israel; however, he said he was taken aback and delighted when he learned that Pinner and the other church members had actually organized a trip.

“We’re very appreciative of the gift from our church fellowship for my wife and me to go to Israel,” said Wheeler. “It was a total shock to both of us.”

Despite the widespread reports that violence ensued from Palestinian protesters over the embassy move, Pinner said they personally did not encounter any violence during their trip.

“We were told that it was being reported there was a tremendous amount of violence in Gaza. You have to make a real effort to go to Gaza, so we weren’t anywhere near that,” Pinner said. “Quite frankly, groups don’t go to those areas and the reason’s they don’t is because it’s not secure.”

Over the course of 10 days, the group was led by their tour guide, a Palestinian Christian named Joseph, or Youssef, who kindly showed them many sites related to the life and teachings of Jesus.

“He was a very pleasant surprise,” Pinner said about their guide. “He was enthusiastic about his faith and made no apologies for his faith and belief in Jesus. He was really able to manipulate and move our schedule around so, that despite anything going on, we were able to keep going and see site after site.”

The group first visited Jaffa, a small town about 15 minutes south of Tel Aviv where it is believed that the Apostle Peter resided and had the vision to take the gospel to a Roman gentile named Cornelius, whose household later became the first to convert from paganism.

From Jaffa, the group traveled to Bethlehem, Nazareth and the City of Galilee, along with other small sites around the Sea of Galilee.

“We spent a lot of time in Galilee and it is a beautiful place,” Wheeler said.

Early one morning, the group set out for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee where they were able to hold a very serene service.

“It was really peaceful and quiet,” Wheeler said. “It kind of sets a mood for you as someone who’s studied and read about that part of the world.”

Next, they traveled to the area of Judea and the archaeological site of Qumran, which is believed to be home to the Jewish Essenes and the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered during excavations held from 1947 to 1956.

‘We also visited one of the most important sites of the Jewish community and that’s the old fortress called Masada … where the last of the Jews held out against the Romans,” Pinner said. “Rather than surrender to the Romans, through an unusual process, over 900 Jews chose to take their own lives rather than surrender.”

Pinner said it is from the incident at Masada that we get the phrase “never again,” which portrays the faith that Jews will never be cornered to the extent of slavery, suicide or death at the hands of another.

A very inspiring stop for the group was getting to see the Jezreel Valley, which is associated with the Mountain of Megiddo. The large fertile valley is south of the lower Galilee region and, according to Christian theology, is the site where the final battle between good and evil, known as Armageddon, will take place.

“That is said to be the valley where human history will come to an end,” Pinner said. “We were able to see that valley from three different places we visited, and it was stunning.”

Wheeler said seeing the Jezreel Valley is something that will always stand out in his mind, and thought it was incredible to see the actual location that is depicted in the bible with such vivid imagery.

“In Revelation chapter 16, he says that the result of that final battle will be that blood will run up to the horses’ bridle and all down that valley,” Wheeler said. “Seeing that kind of swept me away.”

Another extraordinary site the group saw was the Valley of Elah, thought to be the place where a shepherd’s son, David, was able to fight and defeat the giant Goliath in an attempt to establish peace between the Israelites and Philistines. It is believed that the Philistine army was positioned on one side of the valley, with the Israelites on the other ridgeline.

“You can actually see the old streambed where David would have come off of that ridgeline,” Pinner said, noting that the area was still undeveloped and in its raw form, being used only agriculturally.

The group even had the opportunity to pray at the Western Wall, which is regarded as the most religious site in the world for the Jewish people and a location where thousands of men and women travel to visit and recite prayers each year.

Men are required to wear a Kippah or Yarmulke when praying at the Western Wall and Pinner said they were actually provided to visitors for free.

“Men and women do not pray at the same location there,” said Pinner. “A lot of Jewish women wear a scarf when they pray, so I asked our ladies to do that as a sign of reverence and respect for that place.”

The last four days of their trip, which coincided with the Muslim holiday Ramadan, was dedicated to viewing sites within Jerusalem.

“You literally go up a hill and on that drive up that hill you come into the view of the city of Jerusalem … it’s kind of breathtaking,” Wheeler said. “I had read about it, preached about it and sang about it, and then it became a reality. It was a really emotional moment for me to finally see Jerusalem.”

In one of their stops in Jerusalem, the group was pleasantly surprised by their visit to the Friends of Zion Museum which tells the story of the movement to create a Jewish homeland, dating all the way back to 1700. The museum was created by Mike Evans, an author and American evangelist who used Pixar technology to create the exhibits.

“It features not Jewish leaders, but non-Jews who were convinced the Jewish people needed to return to their homelands, which today is called Israel,” Pinner said.

Pinner said the technology was impressive and featured many individuals who believed a Jewish state was necessary to protect the Jewish people.

One of the younger members of the group commented that in the few hours spent at the museum she had learned more about the history of the Jewish people and the development of the nation of Israel than in all of her years in public schooling.

While visiting Jerusalem, they stayed two nights at a resort at the Dead Sea and also walked the Via Dolorosa, the path that biblical scripture says Jesus walked on his way to the cross.   

“We don’t have all the records of all that Jesus did, so I would assume anywhere we walked in Jerusalem, we probably walked somewhere he had previously, and I’m sure we did,” said Wheeler.

The beauty of the 70-mile long and 13-mile wide Dead Sea was mesmerizing for members of the group, who were able to see its beauty captured with a few sunrises and sunsets. 

“The Dead Sea is strikingly beautiful,” said Wheeler. “It has a bluish hue to it and it looks even more beautiful when the sun is going down on it or coming up on it.”

Two other major sites they saw in Jerusalem were the Garden Tomb, believed to be where Jesus was laid after his death, and Golgotha, the site believed to be where he was crucified.

Pinner said the sites were stunning and saw a huge rock formation that resembles a skull at Golgotha.

“What verifies the site for me is there was a conjunction of two Roman roads at that site,” Pinner said. “Romans always crucified people publically. As people come into Jerusalem by two different roads they would pass by this site.”

The Ire Da Vie, or the City of David, and Emmaus, the site of one of the only two Christian churches built by the Crusaders that still remain standing, were also on the list of sites the group viewed in Jerusalem.

Perhaps one of the most moving experiences for the group on the trip was a baptism ceremony held in the Jordan River at Yardenit, a place the state of Israel established to give Christians and other groups access to the river.

“I believe the most powerful, spiritual and inspirational event was the baptism service,” Pinner said. 

Along with the group’s members who were baptized, a young lady, an Asian couple and a man from Africa all unexpectedly took part in the baptism ceremony, each one saying they felt led to do so.

“We had four people we had never met, never knew, that were baptized as part of our group,” said Pinner, who plans to send the four individuals photos of the special event.

Wheeler said almost their entire group was baptized or re-baptized there in the Jordan River, making it a very memorable experience for everyone involved.

“It’s kind of hard for me to put into words,” Wheeler said about the baptism. “It’s something I always wanted to do was to be baptized in the Jordan River. It was quite emotional to think that we were at least in the same place or the same river where thousands of years ago people were baptized under John the Baptist.”

The group also asked their guide to take them to the site of the new embassy in Tel Aviv, which Pinner said was located in Talpiot, an upper-class Jewish neighborhood.

“It’s a more modern looking building, and it does not look ancient,” Pinner said. 

The group got right up in front of the embassy and their guide asked the security there if they could take a group photo, which was met with a very swift “no” as a response. While Pinner had a camera in his hand he said a man came out and stopped them and to avoid risking an arrest, the group was forced to leave.

“Joseph (the group’s tour guide) told the driver we have to go, we have to go, move now,” Pinner said. “The other people on the bus were still able to get some photos.”

Both Wheeler and Pinner said they encountered so many interesting and kind people on the trip and finished up by shopping in the Old City of Jerusalem.

“We moved until we couldn’t move anymore and we came back totally exhausted,” said Pinner. “But that’s how I wanted it. I wanted to see something every moment possible. This is a lifetime event for people to be able to go here and see these things.”

One of the things that surprised Wheeler was that there was both old and 21st century buildings side by side. He said some people still live as nomads, similar to how they would have in biblical days, only now with a few more amenities.

“Also in the Old City of Jerusalem you have a small percentage of Christian people living there. The majority are Muslim, yet they live in close proximity to each other,” Wheeler said. “We were mostly around the Israeli people, but by and large everyone was friendly, especially the Jewish people, they really embrace Americans and love America.”

Pinner, who first visited Israel in 1998, said some of the greatest joys of visiting Israel lie in the people you meet who are open to conversation and developing a relationship.

“After I first visited Israel it transformed my life,” he said. “Israel is a nation and experience everyone should visit and know it for themselves.”