Holy Land – The First Three Days

My Facebook Posts Only Told HALF the Story

If you happen to know me on Facebook, you might have seen the daily posts of my trip to the Holy Land last September — with pictures and short descriptions of the sites our group visited. Those places were incredible and memorable…places that mean a lot because of my faith. I mean…walking where Jesus walked is just about the coolest thing. Ever.

But my Facebook posts only told half the story. We spent about half our trip going to all these sites filled with dead stones. Historic. Holy. Yes. But the other half of our trip was about the living stones, the people of the land.

In September I wasn’t sure of the best way to tell of those experiences…especially while I was there. So I wrote it all down while I was there and since I’ve been back. I’ve prayed about it. I’ve talked with others on the team I traveled with. I’ve had really smart people look over what I’m about to post. And still I’m nervous. I fear I’ll not come close to capturing what I experienced…I mean, how can I? Not really. But I know in my heart I’m supposed to share my experiences.

All the stones – living and dead – have impacted me greatly. In many ways you cannot separate one from the other. I find myself thinking about places, like Bethlehem, and my heart grows so warm. Yes, the beauty of the city and its churches and relics come to mind. But when it comes down to it – the people I met…they’re what move me most.

So. Here goes! The first of nine installments.


Holy Land Trip – Day One

From Newark, New Jersey

Early Friday morning my 19-year-old son texted me, “Hey mom, just wanted to let you know that a few  guys and I decided to make the trip to Alabama for the OSU game, then we’re going to the Alabama game in Tuscaloosa tomorrow.” These young men trekked from the Midwest to the southern states of the U.S. to watch two football games, meet up with fellow fraternity brothers from another university, and experience some southern hospitality. I told him I thought this was a “bucket-list” caliber kind of trip!

Three days later I’m sitting in the airport at Newark, New Jersey, waiting to embark on my own bucket-list worthy trip. I’m headed to the Holy Land!

The crazy thing is I got to be part of a 42-person group three years ago that toured many of the holy sites in Israel. I had been in awe as I packed, traveled, and traversed the deserts, mountains, and cities of one of the oldest places in the world. I just couldn’t believe I was on that trip.

Perhaps I feel even more so as I embark on this trip. Such gratitude. Such awe. Such anticipation!

There are 18 in our group this time, and we’re going as a team who will serve some great people in amazing places, while catching some of the sites, as well. We’re packed. We’re ready for the 10-hour flight to Tel Aviv, Israel.

From the Tour Bus in Israel

The long flight was made to feel a touch longer with some pretty bumpy air turbulence. I was lucky enough to be on a row of three with friends and at one point the turbulence was so bad that Kelley and I just LAUGHED. Well, giggled. We were scared to death, but there was something so surreal about it — much like a wild roller coaster ride with ups and downs, loss of stomach, and a lot of shaking — that we clung to our armrests and giggled till we cried.

Crying – yup, our flight had that too. Several young families with little ones who weren’t shy about voicing their fear and exhaustion.

This plane was a Boeing 777, which means it had two aisles. The Hassidic Jews who sat in our area were actively walking up and down the aisles most of the night. They’re movers when they pray. Even when seated. So if you’re sitting next to one or behind one…let’s just say things get a little shaken up.

Not a lot of sleep happening on this flight…

Our flight was a true international journey – I had Italians beside me, Israelis in front of and behind me, and Kelley and I decided our favorite flight attendant was either German or Austrian, and he could speak lots of languages.

It was nothing short of entertaining…and challenging! I must not have been the only one to feel that way (wink, wink) because when we touched down in Tel Aviv, most of the passengers CHEERED! Literally, clapping and cheering! We’d made it!



Tel Aviv to Caesarea by the Sea

I have this irrational anxiety when it comes to airports and going through security, so when you throw international checkpoints in the mix…I’m nervous. I anticipated the security for several days before I actually left.

Maybe exhaustion was my friend, though, because I didn’t have nearly as much anxiety about going through the passport check point and customs as I’d feared. Funny how that happens – anticipation worse than the reality…

I’m happy to say we all got through without incident. Even all our luggage made it.

Our tour bus picked us up, and we wasted no time heading out to our first stop, Caesarea by the Sea – aka: Caesarea Maritima. I love the Roman ruins left from the days of Herod the Great – an amphitheater, a hippodrome (chariot races!), and the remains of an amazing manmade harbor are among the fantastic sites that have withstood over 2000 years. (How is that possible?)

But. My favorite thing about being in this location is the MEDITERRANEAN SEA! So blue. So beautiful. So inviting. And such a tease because we didn’t get to play in it. But we did walk along a nice portion of it.

I’m once again amazed by the architectural feats of people who lived more than 2000 years ago. Call me ethnocentric (thank you, Dr. Richter!), but I find myself thinking things like, “Here I thought our generation was the only one who could build or think of things like this.”

Surprise! Men and women have been creative and resourceful for millennia!

We made a quick pit stop at Herod’s 11-kilometer aqueduct – a beautiful and practical piece of architecture that would make most civil engineers marvel. This aqueduct was Herod’s solution for moving water to where it was needed.

aqueduct day two

Several of us “girls” hopped out of the bus for a few quick pics and one more close-up look at the sea.

Caesarea Maritima (105)

Mt. Carmel

Being on a plane for as long as we were can throw a person’s sense of time off. It’s a little shocking to realize it’s already Tuesday! Luckily our tour guide is not lost or confused at all…and he knew it was lunch time!

Ironically, he chose the same lunch place we ate at in 2014. It is up in the mountains near Mt. Carmel. Had me some delicious falafel!

Mt. Carmel is in the northwest portion of Israel and is the site of Elijah’s famous challenge to the priests of Ba’al. (See 1 Kings 18.) On top of the little gift shop was a viewing deck that allowed us to see for miles. It was a blue sky kind of day, but a haze seemed to hang over the horizon, so the view was not as clear (or as far) as it could have been. But amazing nonetheless.

Standing there we could see Mt. Tabor, where Jesus’ transfiguration happened. And between them was the Jezreel Valley. The valley looks like a patch-work quilt with all its crops and has served as a major thoroughfare for thousands of years.

As Americans, the concept of something being thousands of years old is foreign. I’m from Texas and Oklahoma – the oldest thing I can think of is the Alamo, which is only a few hundred years old. The history in this Holy Land spans 1000s of years. So. Old.

Haifa and the Bahi’a Gardens

We traveled further north to a port city called Haifa. We wound through lots of small towns and villages to get there, so it came as a surprise to turn another corner and see the Mediterranean Sea! Breathtaking!

The driving was breathtaking as well…just for other reasons. Our bus driver can manage to get this big ol’ bus in any tight space, including the top of the hill overlooking the Bahi’a Gardens and the Haifa port. Before this day I had only seen one picture of Haifa, so as I stepped up to the overlook spot, I was so surprised to see that picture come to life before me. These beautiful gardens sprawled downhill toward the main road leading to the Sea. It reminded me of a Roman colonnade.

bahia day two

Our guide told us that Bahi’a is one of the many religions in the area, and they have basically taken the “best” of the three main religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and made their own belief system. These gardens we saw were very sacred, so we were only allowed to go part way in, but it just didn’t matter! We had a great vantage point. It’s a view that just makes you HAPPY!!

haifa day two

Home Base

(Yee-gads! I’m typing this as we literally wind our way through one of the Arab cities, on our way to where we’re staying for the next three nights. And…oh my! First off, we’re in a HUGE bus and the roads are TINY. It’s a tight squeeze – then add in lots of people and cars. It’s crazy — and a little distracting).

To say that we were tired would not come close to how we felt by the time our bus got us to our lodgings. I’d thought we were staying in Nazareth, but we actually stayed in a city just to the north of it called I’billin.

Our two leaders had asked us to read a book called Blood Brothers, the autobiography of Elias Chacour, before the trip, so I immediately recognized I’billin as the village Elias Chacour had been assigned to as a pastor. And I have to say I’billin has GROWN a lot since his early pastoring days. A small village that once had one church and a few homes is now a nice-sized town!

ibillin day two

Truly, I had no idea where we were going, so it took me by great surprise when our winding, narrow-road tour slowed down, and we’d arrived at Mar Elias – the school Elias Chacour started years ago and our home base for three nights.

mar elias guest house day two
Our guest quarters were on the fourth floor of the Mar Elias elementary school. The elevator was great for luggage, but most of the time we hiked the stairs!

We got our luggage up the elevator and ourselves settled in our rooms then showered (heaven!). And before we knew it, dinner was being served. Home cooked! Yum!

The overseer of the guesthouse was the sweetest woman, and she was thoughtful and full of patience as we all ask a million questions about what we were eating and seeing and learning.

Two leaders emerged before us at dinner time. One was a Methodist missionary from England, while the other was an American United Methodist elder appointed as a General Board of Global Ministries Missionary. She actually helps church groups (of any denomination) present in Israel, especially UMC volunteer teams or pilgrimages. She lives in Beit Jala and traveled to I’billin to see us.

They spent time with us explaining their roles, their hearts, and their hopes. They’ve asked us to be aware of everything we were going to see and experience because it becomes part of our own stories, and then they asked us to consider sharing what see and experience here with other people.

The American missionary was from Oklahoma! Her first appointment in the Methodist Church was at Nichols Hills UMC. Small world!

Archbishop Chacour

Want to hear another amazing “small world” tidbit? When one of my friends, who’s part of this team, was a newlywed, she and her husband went to Houston to visit her parents. When they arrived, they discovered that her parents were hosting a Palestinian priest named…Elias Chacour! How crazy is it that all these years later she would read his book, stay in the guesthouse on his school’s campus…and see him again!?

I love how God works!

Allow me to tell you a little about Elias Chacour – he is such a big part of where we are that I feel as though you should know some of his story.

Elias Chacour was born into a Palestinian Christian home. The land their family owned had been in their family for generations. In fact they could trace their Christian faith back to the very beginning…as in the beginning…like the original church beginning! Isn’t that a mind-blower?

There we were in the land where Jesus grew up, taught, healed, died, and came back to walk the earth for forty more days. HERE! And so many of the Christians here are like Father Chacour, tracing their Christian heritage back to the days of the early church we read about in the Book of Acts. Wrapping that around your brain yet? I still am!

The Chacour family had an amazing grove of olive trees right outside their village of Bar’am, which was high in the northern mountains of Galilee, not far from Lebanon. They lived a very peaceful life, Jews and Christians living together in the same village.

Elias grew up in the era of World War II, and his father told many stories of how terribly their “blood brothers,” the Jews, had been treated by Hitler and his armies. It was after this war that the persecuted European Jews were given Israel as their home.

A significant part of Elias Chacour’s story happened when his village was raided, and eventually destroyed, by Zionists. Elias was eight years old at the time and has some vivid memories of what the days and months following the raid were like. His family survived, and they were able to relocate to a nearby village, Jish, but that was not the story for most Palestinians. Many were forced to leave Israel and have lived as refugees since that time in neighboring countries. Many were killed.

Elias was the youngest in his family, and his father was able to get him into school in places like Nazareth and Jerusalem even though that was a rare privilege for a Palestinian. His education was extensive and even took him to Europe, where he was shocked to discover the treatment of Palestinians was not much better outside his home country. However, he took advantage of his education and after seminary became a priest in his Melkite Christian Church.

Father Chacour, or Abuna, as his people call him, was assigned to the small Galilean village of I’billin, where he served most of his pastoral years. He advocated and raised money for community centers and schools so that his people would have places to serve together and the children could be educated. His efforts also brought much hope to a people who had lived many years without it.

Mar Elias School, the first school he built and where we’re staying, has grown significantly in the decades since it opened. Someone told us today that it was “Abuna’s school that put I’billin on the map.” Mar Elias is a Christian school still today that teaches Christian and Muslim Palestinians together.

mar elias church.jpg
The Melkite Church on the Mar Elias Campus

To our delight, Abuna Chacour (aka: Father Chacour or Archbishop Chacour) came to see us our first night in Israel. He sat with us for two hours, telling stories of his days in Bar’am. He was incredibly humble and articulate. It was hard to believe our little group from Oklahoma was even on his radar, much less his itinerary…between global meetings nonetheless!

Elias Chacour is an older man now – a retired Archbishop of the Melkite Church. And since meeting him, I’ve learned he has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize and has received numerous honors for his peacemaking efforts, including the World Methodist Peace Award. In fact, in 2001 he was even named “Man of the Year” in Israel. This man is legit!

Even as he hobbles his way through the Mar Elias campus (and the world) with his cane, Abuna Chacour continues to live a very full life, advocating for his people and loving on everyone he meets. He’s an extraordinary peacemaker and continues to be invited by many countries to come share his story and his peacemaking strategies, even meeting with many heads of state.




The Methodist missionaries spent more time with us on this morning. I’d say their time with us was informative, helping us get our heads around the fact that we were staying in an Israeli Arab village, which means the mix of Muslim and Christian inhabitants are Palestinian.

I’ve had to ask a lot of questions about the difference between Palestinians who are Israeli and those who are not so that I can try to understand. I believe the basic way to understand it is that there are Christians and Muslims whose families lived in this country for hundreds of years before Israel was made a nation. Some of these “Palestinians” (for the name of this land/nation was Palestine before Israel was made a nation in 1947) have been given Israeli documents and are considered Israeli. These Palestinians are referred to Israeli Arabs and include both Christians and Muslims. The Palestinians who live in the “occupied territories” of the West Bank and Gaza did not receive citizenship, so they are not Israeli.  They are considered Arab or Palestinian and are also inclusive of both Christians and Muslims.

The missionaries told us that, under the Oslo Accord, one of the things the State of Israel had to do was offer Palestinians/Arabs the same permits for leading tours as Israelis (which I assume is a big deal because tourism is a huge part of the economy there), but since the time of the Accord has passed, Arabs are no longer licensed do so. As a result, of the thousands of tour guides in Israel, there are only 42 Palestinian licensed tour guides left in Israel. In addition, the Arab/Palestinian tour guides are highly monitored by the licensing group. My impression is that any political discussions would not only be taboo but groumds for the removal of their tour guide credentials.

It was an interesting way to start our day. Maybe most interesting was that I had a lot of peace. Both Father Chacour’s and this morning’s conversations felt reverent. We’ve been so welcomed that even the informative sessions have felt like a privilege, an honor.

Mar Elias School

We didn’t have to go far today! We walked down our four flights of stairs and were immediately immersed in the sounds of the elementary children on the first floor.

mar elias school kids day two or three
The view from our bedroom window as the middle school students came outside.

As we walked down the driveway toward the high school, we passed teenage girls running laps for their teacher/coach. The girls smiled as we passed, and I couldn’t help but think that, except for their uniforms, this could be any group of schoolgirls in Oklahoma.

Mar Elias high school day three
Walking up to the high school entrance

We were met just inside the door of the high school and ushered into the teacher’s lounge, where within seconds, teachers stood to greet us and offered us Arab coffee, tea, and water.

As the classes changed to the next hour, we moved into classrooms to observe and be part of conversations, especially in the English classes.

I went to a Freshman English class with three of my friends. The adorable, very young, teacher met us at the door with a huge smile and ushered us into her classroom. She spread us out around the room and asked us to take a seat and introduce ourselves.

We had this amazing dialogue that the teacher navigated for all of us, translating both languages so that the students could communicate with us using the English they’d been learning. I thought they did really well. And I loved watching the teacher – every moment was a teachable moment for her.

As we’d talk about ourselves, she’d grab hold of a word here and there, write it on the white board, and ask the class to tell her what it meant, what its root word was, and what a synonym might be for it. It was so fun!

Overall, these freshman were shy, or maybe just a little nervous, to speak English in front of us, but after a while a few of them warmed up to the idea.

I sat in the back row between two ornery boys and two shy girls who were finally brave enough to speak up as the teacher asked them to describe to us some of their customs. Turns out both girls were more talkative when I’d ask them questions directly.

When I asked them what they like to do when they’re not in school, they giggled and said, “We love to get online and learn new languages.” What? They get home from school and want to learn more? I was impressed!

Amazingly, they already knew Arabic (their language), Hebrew, and English, and then they’re teaching themselves Italian and Japanese. One girl dreams of going to Italy; the other wants to go to Japan. I could relate to wanting to go to Italy – I think they’ve inspired me to learn Italian before I go!

As they continued to tell me more about themselves, I discovered they are much like our American teenagers – they love playing on their phones and doing things with friends. One of them has been in a class to learn a type of traditional dance and travels with her group to perform.

One of our foursome made such good friends with one of the girls near her that she got an invitation to go to the girls’ home for dinner. We were told that Arabs are very hospitable and that we might be invited to their homes, but it still surprised her just how insistent this girl was. I do believe my friend was quite smitten and wanted to take the sweet girl home with her!

Another group of our traveling companions was in an English class with sophomores who were well-educated and much more eager to talk with them. They jumped right into difficult topics, such as politics, and asked them to share their views on things. Our group wasn’t made to feel interrogated. In fact, I think our team was quite impressed and excited to engage in the conversations.

At one point in the conversations, one of our team was answering a question about what differences he saw between Americans and Palestinians and responded by saying he sees that Americans have many more travel freedoms – we can come and go when and where we’d like, unlike Palestinians. We don’t have to carry permits or passports and go through checkpoints. No one asks us where we’re going. We can get on any road or any highway at any time of day.  And as he told them about other injustices he’d seen in Palestinian areas, like the education limitations and how Israeli Arabs have no right to vote, his wife saw one of the young men tear-up. It really moved her. And it moved all of us when they shared the story later that day.

This same group of students was enthralled with the story of how my friend’s parents opened their home to numerous foreign exchange students over the years. (Another small world thing – one of the students who’d stayed in my friend’s home, decades before, has a daughter at Mar Elias, and these students knew of her!!)  One girl in particular had all kinds of questions about how the exchange program works and if they knew how she might go to Harvard or MIT.

After class one sweet girl sat next to our leader to ask him further about her dream of going to Oxford University and maybe one day becoming an American. He got really choked up with her passion and told her to never give up!

As we debriefed about our experiences later that night, I began to grasp that the only view of Americans these Palestinians have is what they might see on a movie, TV show, or on social media. When I stop to think what that must look like, I cringe. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to show these sweet kids there are Americans who love and laugh and are willing to talk about hard things.

And…then…it hits me. The only view I have had of Palestinians is what I see on TV or on social media.

Until today.

Ba’ram (or Bi’rim) – The Village of Father Elias Chacour

We piled in the bus later in the day for a quick jaunt north to see Ba’ram, the village where Father Chacour had grown up and one of many destroyed by the Zionist Army. Today, it’s part of a national park where visitors can see the ruins of the village, including a first century synagogue.

baram synagogue day three

We were surprised to be shown into a small Maronite church (we’d call it a chapel) in the midst of all the overgrown ruins.

baram church day three

A local man met us there, showed us in, and spent some time sharing his story – he, like Father Chacour, lived in Ba’ram as a boy and could tell of the occupation and later destruction of his village. This sweet man was all smiles and seemed very excited to get to share a bit of his family’s story.

baram local man day three

We were reminded that from Ba’ram, Lebanon was only two or three kilometers north. We were steps away!!

We’d gone north from I’billn through a town, Jish, to get to Ba’ram and had to actually back (as in reverse) two blocks to get where we needed. Tight spaces!! It was from Jish that we could see the tallest mountain in Israel, Mount Hermon.

We were in the Galilean part of the country, which means we were in the lands that surround the Sea of Galilee. It was quite the contrast in landscape from the more central area we’d come. It was much greener and fertile. So many orchards and vineyards – oranges, apples, cherries, pomegranates!

orchards day three


In the end, going to Ba’ram gave me a truer picture of the land I read about in Blood Brothers instead of the more deserty one I imagined (which is silly because he kept talking about the groves of trees!). The destruction of this little village is a much more recent history than most of the sites we’ll see in Israel, but it seems a fitting way to start off our tour of the Galilean area. More of which we’ll see tomorrow.


Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

3 thoughts on “Holy Land – The First Three Days

  1. Shelley, thank you for sharing so many of our experiences on this trip. You are a gifted communicator and writer! I am reminded once again of the powerful witness and faithfulness of our Christian brothers and sisters in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

  2. Shelley, I tapped into your blog years ago when studying a book. I have totally enjoyed all your writings and teaching. Sometimes it makes me feel like I am one of you. Thanks for sharing.

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