Tabor College Religion Professor Doug Miller has organized two previous trips to the Holy land — Jordan, Israel, and Palestine — in the winter months of 2007 and 2009. He is leading a new group of 30 people Jan. 3 through 25 — a combination of Tabor and Bethel college students and unrelated travelers from across the United States — to the Middle East.
The goal of the journey is to strengthen participants’ faith by giving them an intimate look at Bible history and show them the struggles of modern Israelis and Palestinians.
Keith Harder of Hillsboro experienced an emotional connection by following the footsteps of Jesus.
“The Bible talks about Jesus walking with his disciples to towns around the Sea of Galilee,” he said. “It impressed upon me that they did spend a lot of time walking. It gave me an appreciation with some things that I take for granted. These were real places with real people.”
Harder and wife Judy went with Miller in 2009. Harder said taking a boat ride in the Sea of Galilee was a striking experience. Seeing the ancient sections of Jerusalem still intact from the first century were also sights he treasured.
The Harders’ experience was amplified with other couples on the trip. They gained appreciation for the sights by having a constant dialogue and trying to see the events through different perspectives.
“Different people were seeing different things,” Keith Harder said. “We spent a lot of time together.”
It was this type of experience that Miller was looking to foster.
“It’s fun to see friendships develop along the way,” he said. “I think it was a very meaningful experience.”
The trip will begin after a flight into Amman Jordan. From there, the group will drive to different places in Jordan. The ancient city of Petra featuring temples carved in the sides of a red-rock valley is one of the stops. Mount Nebo, the place where Moses watched the Israelites enter their home country after spending 40 years in the desert, will be another highlight of days spent in Jordan.
The group will then drive into the West Bank. They will spend three nights in Bethlehem and then work their way through the rest of the country, spending time in Nazareth, Jericho, Khirbet Qumran, Dan, Capernaum, and Jerusalem.
Ancient manufactured wonders exist in nearly every location.
They will visit a synagogue in Capernaum built in the fourth century. It was built over a synagogue dated back to the time of Christ.
Ruins line the land. Dan is no longer a living city but a national park featuring the remnants of the Biblical city.
The western wall and Holy Temple in Jerusalem are other important historical attractions.
The locations have significance in the Bible.
“The temple area is just really striking,” Miller said. “Some steps go back to the first Century. Jesus walked up and down those steps. I hope the Bible sites make the Bible come alive for them.”
While witnessing the triumphs of ancient civilizations in Israel, the participants in the trip will also experience the tension between people that are struggling to coexist without violence.
“I think that becomes reality for them,” Miller said. “People on both sides of the wall have to live with violence and potential violence.”
Harder said he never felt he was in serious danger. Guards were available to protect people on the streets. Harder was in Israel in late December 2008, when fighting broke out in the Gaza strip.
“It quieted down more and more when we were there,” Miller said.
However, Harder gained an understanding of the distrust between the Palestinians and Israelis.
“Palestinians felt like their homes were taken from them,” Harder said. “Israeli Jews feel the land is a God-given mandate.”
Two experiences made an impression on Harder and Miller.
Harder was moved by his interaction with Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem.
“There is a vibrant Christian community; it’s small,” he said. “They feel they’re being squeezed out by the Israelis and the Palestinian Muslims.”
Harder said Palestinians face harsh economic realities. The Christians have a contingent of business owners, but tourism was a driving factor for business. Tourism has been affected by the strict separation from Israel.
“Many of them have emigrated to the U.S., Western Europe, or Jordan, which hurts the Palestinian economy even more.”
The Palestinian Christians feel betrayed by Christians in the U.S.
“Most evangelical Christians would identify most with Israel,” Harder said. “They feel terribly torn when they hear that American Christians unthinkingly side with Israel. When Christians unthinkingly side with Israel what they’re doing is making things much more difficult for their Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine.”
Miller was impressed and encouraged by groups strenuously working for peace in Israel.
One group was a community of Israelis and Palestinians living together.
“I don’t think the differences are religious,” Harder said. “I think the differences are political.”
“Any poll of Israelis says that they want a permanent solution,” Miller added. “The people who won’t be satisfied with any compromise are the noisiest.”
Another organization was more shocking to Miller. Combatants for Peace is a group of former Palestinian Freedom Fighters and Israeli Soldiers working together.
“It was really moving,” Miller said. “These people hated each other but learned to trust each other.”
Harder returned from Israel asking people to avoid simplifying the situation.
“I’ve never met anybody who’s been there that has tried to understand that doesn’t come back with a changed view,” he said.