It wasn’t a tourist experience or even a vacation. For Reverend Kathy Currier and husband Jim, the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land was a pilgrimage experience. “It really was a transformational trip,” affirms Rev. Kathy. Their journey to Israel wasn’t a trip they had spent years planning for as many do, but rather it came about as an opportunity. Kathy, recently ordained in the Methodist church this past summer, learned of an opportunity-a negotiated reduced rate through Educational Opportunities to travel to the Holy Land for newly ordained ministers of the West Ohio conference.
Kathy, the minister of Fayette United Methodist Church, says her mission minded church was gracious and wanted them to have the experience. So, she, Jim and Aaron Hylander who assists with the youth ministry signed up for the trip. Kathy says she was questioned by some people about her fears of traveling to an area known for age-old violence to which she replied, “None.” From the beginning, she viewed the trip as a blessing and decided to embrace the experience.
On February 3rd, the trio boarded a plan for a 9 hour flight halfway around the world. They landed in Tiberius in a time zone 7 hours ahead of Philadelphia, where they had flown out from. Tired but excited for the adventures ahead, they did their best to adjust to the time zone. The organized trip consisted of a very full schedule of daily activities and destinations.
The first full day began with a trip to the Sea of Galilee. They loaded a boat and ventured out, singing hymns, and reading scripture. While there, they ate a popular dish called “Saint Peter’s fish”. Each destination, such as the location of the feeding of the five thousand, included the reading of the corresponding scripture, a devotion, worship, and singing. The first day ended with a renewing of their baptismal in the Jordan River which was a highlight for both Rev. Kathy and Jim.
The next day, wedding vows were renewed at the Franciscan Wedding Church in Cana, the location of Jesus’s first miracle of the changing of water into wine.
“Everything in Scripture was brought to life,” reflects Rev. Kathy. “All the things you read about in scripture, we were there.”
The age of the structures, the trees, the roads-the Curriers were awestruck by the awesomeness that the very things they were looking at, were the same that Jesus and others from His time would have looked at and walked on. For instance, the trees in the Garden of Gethsemane are around 3,000 years old. Rev. Kathy says she “found it crazy” how the people who live there walk pass Jacob’s Well and other Biblical landmarks without any recognition daily. She recognizes, “They are used to it, but for us, it was an amazing experience I don’t know if I could ever get used to.”
For this American couple, the journey was an emotional one. Both found it touching to lay eyes on the Star signifying Christ’s birthplace. The Grotto, which means underground, is the spot that marks where Jesus was born. All forty from their bus gathered to sing “Away in a Manger.” Many of the original locations of historical significance from scripture have had churches built on top of them.
Jericho, the world’s oldest city, was another stop on their journey as well as the Mount of Olives where communion was shared. Each site was narrated by their tour guide, a UCLA trained archaeologist who then returned to his native Israel to receive both Masters and Doctorate degrees in archeology as well as being trained in five languages. “He was a wealth of knowledge,” both Curriers agreed.
The food followed a Mediterranean diet consisting of a lot of fish, salads, figs, almonds, and hummus. Kathy says the natives are not big meat eaters and instead focus on fish and fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh baked breads were served at most meals but without butter as is customary in America. Other foods they experienced were cheeses and falafel, a common staple of fried chickpeas and herbs. Jim fondly recalls eating fresh pomegranates. Since the area consists of predominantly Jews and Muslims, food is served Kosher making pork a taboo food item.
Other emotional experiences for the group included the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of the Cross” the pathway where Jesus carried His cross. “Much of this is uphill where He carried His cross,” Kathy explains. As a direct result of the Via Dolorosa, the couple say they will experience Easter differently this year.
They also visited the original pit where Jesus was lowered and spent the night the day he was arrested. They took stairs and once gathered all sang an emotional “Were You There?”
Although vivid memories are the best keepsakes from the journey, Rev. Kathy tried to bring something tangible back from each area they visited such as a carving from the olive trees. Olive trees which are plentiful require six years to dry out and then have a delicate timeframe in which they must be carved. Kathy also journaled daily and kept notes to help her remember details of all they visited and experienced. To add to this, she says they must have taken over 600-700 pictures.
Besides the spiritual destinations, the couple recalls looking out the bus window one afternoon and watching a man ride a camel. “Some people really do still travel like this,” said Rev. Kathy. Street vendors dotted the streets with their goods such as scarves and whistles. Stones and rocks are everywhere. Homes are crafted from the stones unlike wooden built homes here. Other than pick pocketers, the couple say there were no security or safety issues or concerns for them.
“If there was a downside, it was that there was so much, we didn’t have time to enjoy it all. We were busy from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening.” Jim shares. The trip consisted of a lot of walking, upwards of 7-8 miles a day over rough terrain and uneven cobblestone at times.
In a reflective mood, Rev. Kathy relates their experience in the Holy Land to how Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian priest, describes “thin places” as “the places where the membrane between heaven and earth is stretched so tight you can almost feel and touch the other side.” For Rev. Kathy, “the close encounters with the holy and transcendent were all over the Holy Land for me! Especially I would say the pit, Bethlehem and the visit to where Jesus was born, the Jordan River, and the Wailing Wall.”
Kathy and Jim, the parents of six grown children, are already planning for the next trip. They hope to announce plans to the congregation for a 2016 trip soon so those interested can begin to save and plan for the trip of a lifetime. When asked what she might do differently on this next trip, she thinks for a moment and responds, “Maybe not so many pictures. Some places, I’d like to separate myself from the tour guide, to remove the ear piece with his narration, and simply be more present in the moment.”
For now, the Curriers will relive the memories from this “transformational” trip. Rev. Kathy affirms, “It just changes everything.”