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Johnson Countians visit Israel on mission trip

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been on going since the early 20th century. As persecution against the Jewish people increased in Europe toward the end of the 1800’s, it saw the rise of a movement to establish a homeland in Palestine, located in the Middle East. As the number of Jewish people moved to the area, the tensions began to increase in the Holy Land. The conflict over borders, control of Jerusalem, Israelis and refugees are just a few of the on-going problems that continue to this day. Fighting once again broke out in the region while a group of 13 from Johnson County recently made their way to visit the land where Jesus Christ lived and was crucified.

Pastor Lonnie Denney of Nelson Chapel Baptist Church was the only member of the group who had previously been to Israel. He relayed the group was very grateful for the many prayers offered as fighting broke out while they toured the often unstable region. While they were in Israel for eight days during the latest crisis, air raid sirens warning of missiles could be heard once and bomb warnings were issued twice. Balloons in the sky equipped with cameras kept a watch out for any missiles in the region. According to Willie Hammons from Johnson County, a missile could be seen as it was shot down. While in Jericho in the Muslim quarter, vibrations could be felt from a missile nearby. “I never felt like I was in imminent danger,” Denney said. Under the care of a skilled tour guide and a creative bus driver, the group had to find another way to get back into Israel as one of the Palestinian borders had been closed.
According to Denney, the group flew to London from the United States for an overnight stay and enjoyed sightseeing before heading onto Tel Aviv. While the primary reason for their trip was to visit the Holy Land, they also did some missionary work as they passed out Bible tracts in certain areas of the region. “They were very curious about our faith,” Denney said of one family in particular.
The group stayed on a kibbutz during their stay in Israel. There are approximately 270 of these Israeli communes that were set up when the country was first founded in the 1940’s. At that time, it was a way of survival for the Jewish people and very socialistic. According to Denney, the Israelis are Jewish by race but not always necessarily religion.

Used to groups of tourists from other countries, hospitality houses on the kibbutz were set up as small cabins that often included hot tubs. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis are dependent on tourism and are very receptive to the many people who visit their countries. The group ate kosher foods during their stay and kept to the regulations of Jewish dietary laws. According to Denny, they ate a lot of salad for breakfast that included a traditional meal of tomatoes and cucumbers. They consumed many vegetables but not a lot of beef during their stay. Dairy foods are served during the first meal of the day. Lunch often includes hummus, made from cooked and mashed chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, along with plenty of vegetables. The evening meal consists of meat and vegetables, but no dairy. The beef eaten by Jewish people must be slaughtered in a specific way to keep the foods kosher. While pork can be found in the larger cities, such as Tel Aviv, it is not available in many parts of Israel. According to Denny, the Pizza Hut in Israel serves pizza with cheese and vegetables, but no meat.
The group from Johnson County visited many different sites throughout the region. “We were busy from daylight to dark,” said Naomi Hammons. One of the favorite stops for the Hammons was the Sea of Galilee. “We held devotions out on a boat,” she said. “We saw where Jesus walked on the water and went fishing.” The group enjoyed swimming in the Dead Sea, the lowest and the saltiest place on earth. Swimming in this body of water could be considered more like floating because of the high salt content.
Johnson Countians also visited Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. It has grown into a large city and is located in Palestine on the Western Bank. According to Denney, Israelis are forbidden to enter Bethlehem. There is a fenced wall around the city and visitors must go through checkpoints. While there, they visited the site of Rachel’s tomb, considered to be the third holiest site in Judaism. Jews have made the pilgrimage to this location since ancient times.

Denney baptized eight of the group from Johnson County in the Jordan River during their visit to the Holy Land. Although they had previously been baptized, they wanted to be immersed in the water where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. They were able to see the remains of Peter’s house in Capernaum, a fishing village on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Across the road there once stood the synagogue where Jesus healed the man with the withered hand and cast out demons.

According to Denney, Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt again so many times that the town is rebuilt on top of layers of rubble. At the site of the Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall, considered to be a very sacred site for Jews, you only see approximately 60 feet of the 120-foot wall. The remaining 60 feet is buried below. The Wailing Wall is said to be located at the site of Herod’s temple, built in approximately 20 B.C. Every Friday, Jews pray at the holiest shrine in the Jewish world. Often there are tens of thousands gathered for prayer. There are separate entrances for men and women.

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