In February, a group of over one hundred United Methodists from North Georgia visited the Holy Land. The group included twenty-four people associated with First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of blog entries.
The trip actually began over a year before. Bishop Mike Watson, episcopal leader of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, regularly leads tour groups to the Holy Land. We promoted the 2015 trip at church, and many indicated an interest. Ultimately, three of the clergy along with twenty-one other church members, family, and friends made the pilgrimage.
Our journey to Israel included a two-leg flight from Atlanta to Newark to Tel Aviv. Due to inclement weather in the northeast, United Airlines cancelled our flight out of Atlanta thirty-six hours prior to departure. Herculean efforts by the tour company managed to book our group on two different flights. We all arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport in time for the connecting flight.
The airline required each passenger to undergo a second security screening at the gate. Flights in and out of Israel apparently garner extra attention. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.
The plane finally pushed away from the gate a little before midnight . . . or at least tried to do so. The arctic temperatures had frozen the slush around the wheels, effectively cementing the landing gear to the runway.
The ground crew summoned a “super tug” which bounced the airplane up and down. Then it pushed the Boeing777 out of the terminal . . . and pulled it back in again. The process repeated several times like a group of people trying to push a stuck car out of the snow.
The wheels finally gained traction, and the pilot taxied to a nearby stand. High pressure pumps deiced the plane, spraying it with a hot, glycol-based liquid. While the technicians treated the fuselage, the runway beneath the airplane refroze. The pilot slipped and slid on the icy tarmac before finally gaining purchase.
By the time the airplane taxied to the airstrip, most of the passengers were entertaining serious, second thoughts about the entire endeavor. However, the pilot redlined the throttles and released the brakes. Strong winds pushed the plane sideways as it hurtled down the runway. Since you’re reading this blog, we made it off the ground safely.
United Airlines has replaced the economy 2x5x2 seating arrangement with a more comfortable 3x3x3 plan. However, I still found myself wedged in the middle seat on the starboard side. (International travelers prefer to say “starboard” and “port” rather than “right” and “left”!)
After a midnight supper no one wanted but everyone ate, the lights dimmed, and we settled in for the 10-plus hour flight. I’ve never been able to sleep sitting up, and I envy those who can travel comatose. I completed a crossword puzzle, read a book, watched four movies, and tracked our progress across the Atlantic.
Israel is seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. After the delays, we finally arrived at Ben Gurion Airport about 6:00 p.m. local time but only 11:00 a.m. body time. The airline aggravated the jet lag by serving us breakfast an hour prior to landing.
We stumbled zombie-like off the airplane and trudged through passport control. The bedraggled group gathered at luggage claim, waiting for stragglers. A tour group representative herded us to waiting buses which took us on a ninety minute trip to Bethlehem. After check-in, I collapsed into the bed.
This inauspicious start became the prelude to a life-changing pilgrimage. Although I visited Israel during seminary, the intervening years have blurred the memories. These eight days in the Holy Land transformed my life and ministry.
During the Seder meal at Passover, a traditional, Jewish toast declares: “Next year in Jerusalem!” This year we were blessed to fulfill this heartfelt prayer, and I look forward to sharing the experience with you.