Trip to Holy Land Intensifies Faith
Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about not only Reverend Bill Dawson’s trip to the Holy Land, but how this trip shaped his faith during the Easter holiday. Next week’s article will feature not only more revelations about Dawson’s trip, but make an announcement about his future plans.
SISTERSVILLE – Sistersville United Methodist Church Reverend Bill Dawson and a small group of pilgrims from the area toured the Holy Land for two weeks in February.
The tour group visited places near and far like Bethlehem, Jericho and Jerusalem before returning in early March to West Virginia.
“Every trip to the Holy Land is a trip of a lifetime for me,” Dawson said “Although I have been to Bethlehem during previous tours, this was the first time that our group had the opportunity to stay overnight in that wonderful city.”
Palm Sunday’s meaning becomes ever more seared into the soul after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
“We followed the path that Jesus followed on that first Palm Sunday,” Dawson said. “We ended at the Garden of Gethsemane, where olive trees over 2000 years old are still standing. These same trees were there when Jesus was praying out to God, ‘Not my will be done, but your will.’ It was after praying in the Garden that Jesus was arrested. It is truly awe-inspiring to walk that path and know that we are in the same place that these events occurred.”
Dawson described the little town that is known the world over, not just by three kings, as the place Jesus was born.
“At night, from the hotel balcony, I would go out and look over the Bethlehem, spend time in prayer, and reflect on what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph as they arrived here,” he said. “Of course, the landscape has changed; however, this is the actual place where the Christmas story began, and here I am looking at the landscape of the city. I would think about the hardships the Holy family endured, Mary being young and pregnant, and Joseph unable to provide proper shelter as Mary was due to give birth at any moment. Although they received words of hope and encouragement about their son through prophetic dreams and angelic visits, life was still difficult for this chosen couple.”
Dawson pondered what he took home spiritually from his experiences in Bethlehem.
“As I reflected, God reminded me that being a Christian doesn’t mean that life is always easy and that doing the work of ministry is a life of sacrifice,” he said. “Mary and Joseph had to leave their home, their families, and even travel to Egypt to keep their son safe. My life as a United Methodist Pastor is a life of itinerant ministry. My wife and I had to say goodbye to our families and go where God would lead us. As I overlooked this city, I thought of their travels and my family’s travels and how God has directed our paths, our journey to fulfill God’s plan.”
Bethlehem was not the only place Dawson visited. After the group left the city after touring so many important places in that area of the West Bank, they traveled through Nazareth and visited the Basilica of Annunciation. The Church was established at the site where, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the Annunciation took place. Dawson said the current church is a two-story building constructed in 1969 over the site of an earlier Byzantine-era and then Crusader-era church. Inside, the lower level contains the Grotto of the Annunciation, believed by many Christians to be the remains of the original childhood home of Mary, he said.
“This is a historically significant site, considered sacred within some circles of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, the basilica attracts many Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox Christian visitors every year,” Dawson said.
The Church of the Annunciation was founded around the same time as the Church of Nativity (the birthplace in Bethlehem) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb in Jerusalem). Some version of it was known to have still been in existence around 570 AD, but it was destroyed in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest of Palestine, Dawson said.
“Reflecting on the birth of Jesus and being in the places that impacted him as a child was awe inspiring,” he said.
Galilee conjures up many images for Christians about the lives of Jesus and disciples.
“As we arrived in Tiberius and checked into our hotel, I looked out the window from my room and had a beautiful view of the Sea of Galilee,” Dawson said. “It was in this part of Israel that over 70 percent of the miracles of Jesus took place. That is in itself always inspiring. We know that the Sea of Galilee (Capernaum) was the place that Jesus utilized as his “headquarters” during his 3-year ministry. Around the Sea of Galilee, we went to the places where the stories from the four gospels happened, even sailing on the ‘sea’ with a local captain and his crew.”
Jerusalem is place that every Christian knows something about from the Bible. With his mind’s eye, Dawson painted a picture of the old city.
“Our trip in Israel ended with our final hotel stay in downtown Jerusalem,” Dawson said. “We toured the Holy places in and around the city. Again, this was another Holy moment for me. Here, I was walking where Jesus walked and seeing a city that is so special to the Jewish people, Christianity, and Islam. Our bus parked at the top of the Mt. Of Olives, and we had a beautiful panoramic view of the old city of Jerusalem. Straight across from our view point was the Muslim Dome of the Rock. When Jesus was standing where we were, he was looking at the Jewish Temple.”
The tour group walked the Via Dolorosa known in Latin as “Way of Sorrows.” This street within the Old City of Jerusalem was the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion.
“The winding route from the Antonia Fortress west to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – a distance of about 2,000 feet-is a celebrated place of Christian Pilgrimage,” he said.
Dawson said the current route has been established since the 18th Century and is currently marked by Stations of the Cross, some of which are within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Dawson said within the church, the tour group saw the place of crucifixion, the slab of stone where the body of Jesus was taken down and anointed, remnants of the cliffs show evidence of an earthquake which the Bible speaks of at the death of Jesus – and the tomb where tradition says that his body was placed until the 3rd day, the day of Resurrection.
“This is a powerful place to be and to walk,” Dawson said. “It was on this trip that we were finally able to visit the tomb. That was a definite Holy moment.”
To get an idea of what the tomb would have looked like in Jesus’ day, Dawson said, the tour group visited the Garden Tomb. The pilgrims had the opportunity to share in Holy Communion and recall the story of the Last Supper.
“To put all of these days and visits together, we were able to see the life of Jesus unfold before our very eyes,” Dawson said. “That is enough to strengthen any believer’s faith. Not only do you have the text from the Bible, but the places and the history is right before our very eyes.”
Dawson said the tour group’s guide provided insight into why Americans should be passionate about Christianity.
“Our guide in Israel was a Palestinian Christian who gave great insight to faith in the Holy Land,” Dawson said. “He spoke about Christianity as being a prominent way of life for he and his family. He also spoke about how Christians in the United States utilize the ‘Christian’ term too lightly. He said that when a person claims to be Christian, ask them if they are a “practicing Christian”/”Active Christian”. He said that Christians in America show themselves at Easter and Christmas, but seem to be missing when it comes to living out their faith during the remainder of the year. To our guide and to me, this is wrong. We should have passion for our faith every day, and we should be living out our faith for all the world to see.
Dawson saw with Easter around the corner, Dawson said, the trip underscored the need for Christians to embrace their faith.
“Passion can be seen in the American way of life when it comes to sports, our jobs and entertainment, but seems to be waning when it comes to Practicing the Christian faith,” he said. “Seeing these Holy sites in Jerusalem reminds me that these aren’t just stories, the tomb was and still is empty. The resurrection happened over 2000 years ago, and we continue to tell His story. If every person professing to be a Christian would attend a church and get active, our local congregations would be able to accomplish so much more for the Kingdom of God.”