Hill Crest Baptist Church pastor Dr. Stephen Anthony had barely stood from the front pew to begin his walk to the pulpit Sunday morning when the congregation stood and began to applaud and cheer.
The ovation was duplicated moments later when Anthony invited the 16 of the 27 who had traveled with him to Israel in attendance at Sunday’s service to join him at the altar.
They were all one day shy of being home for one week after finding themselves caught in the Holy Land after the terrorist group Hamas began its attacks on the Gaza Strip.
Anthony told The Anniston Star earlier in the week several had returned with a stomach bug and he had been diagnosed with pneumonia and COVID-19 the day after returning.
“The service today has been changed just to say ‘Thank you’ to you as the church family,” Anthony said as he regained his composure following the ovation for his return on Sunday morning. He began by thanking the church family for what its members did for the travel team as the latter found themselves under the hazards of a war.
“You and the church staff have led our team to come back to a praying church and a celebrating church,” Anthony said.
He said when they returned last Monday evening, most of the group had arrived back at 7 p.m. while others waited in Miami for a later flight to Birmingham.
“We were watching on our phones seeing them formally greeted thinking there would not be as many when we arrived at midnight,” Anthony said. “When we in the second group arrived at the airport, there were five or ten people at the airport. When we got back to the church around midnight, there were 30 or 40 folks here at the church. We can’t thank you enough for welcoming us back and praying for us while we were there. You came together in an awesome way to become the hands and feet of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Anthony sat for an interview Tuesday morning with The Star describing the timeline of the travel team’s experience.
The group of 27 began their journey to Israel on Oct. 4 with Anthony telling them that the initial flight “would be the worst day of the trip.”
“We flew out on an 8:30 p.m. flight getting us to Istanbul around 2:30 p.m. their time,” Anthony said. “We had an eight-hour layover before flying out to Amman, Jordan.”
The travel team arrived in Jordan at 11:40 p.m. that night getting to the hotel at 1 a.m. They woke up at 6 a.m. to take the three-hour drive to Petra — part of the route Moses took on his Exodus journey.
“They had some sleep on the plane and bus and were excited as we walked and prayed there,” Anthony said. “We got back to the hotel about 7:30 p.m. and the next morning is when it all happened.”
Anthony said the plans called for the team to wake up and leave for Madaba, a city he called “a city of mosaics.”
“There is a church there a lot of people go to, but we wanted to get to the mountain above where God showed Moses ‘the place of promise’ where He would deliver the people of Israel from slavery.”
Anthony said he had been to that spot two or three times when it had been “windy with the trees bent over,” but even the tour guide made mention of just how calm the weather was at that moment.
“We got to the top and could see 50 miles away with a great view of what Moses got to see,” he said. “We took a group picture there, got back on the bus and made our way into the valley going to the Dead Sea area and where we were going to cross into Israel.”
Anthony said halfway into the trip, “the guide’s face showed that something was up.”
“We were on the border of Jordan and Israel with all these Jordanians running around saying they were not letting anyone pass through,” he said.
Anthony said the tour guide was the owner of a large restaurant in Amman and had to return for an engagement. Anthony then listened as the guide and the bus driver spoke to each other in Arabic.
“I just knew something was up,” he said. “They wouldn’t let us in at one point and, for whatever reason, told us to go four or five miles to another point. We drove this bus that shouldn’t have been going through this area and they let us into where you unload the bus before you cross the border. I wondered what was going on and the driver said he didn’t know.”
Anthony said it was then that several people on the bus began checking the news, showing him pictures “and were seeing there were 5,500 missiles shot into Israel.”
The bus driver and tour guide left the bus for an hour “while we sat on this hot bus.”
“We prayed asking God to just let us pass through,” Anthony said. “There was a calmness on the bus as the guide and driver ran toward us. The guide said he didn’t know why but they were going to let us pass through.”
Anthony was also advised there would be no porters available to handle the luggage for a group mostly women and people of senior status.
“We got our bags from beneath the bus and rolled them into the Jordanian side, get them X-rayed then had to put them back on the bus,” he said. “The tour guide hugs us all, again saying he didn’t know why they were letting us through and that he couldn’t go with us but the driver would take us.”
It was a two- or three-mile drive to the Israeli side of the border “where we waited for them just to let us through.”
After crossing the border, their Israeli guide told them there were “no problems.”
“I’m showing him the news on the phones and he has the attitude of it being strange, but ‘we’re used to this kind of thing and no big deal.’”
A two-hour drive got them to the Sea of Galilee where they stopped at what Anthony called “a nice hotel” where they ended the day.
The day started with a nice breakfast for the team, knowing things were happening but being reassured those issues were in the southern part of the country and things were going to be fine.
“I’m not seeing that,” Anthony said. “I’m thinking something is up while reading news reports Israel is in shock. All that time, Hamas is going back and forth taking people hostage.”
The team went to The Fishing Boat Experience to find it was not open — something Anthony found strange, having visited it before.
“They took us around the building where some private boat owners took us out on the Sea of Galilee where we had our devotional on ‘Peace, be still,’” he said.
That peace was not in the air.
“The whole time there were fighter jets — you couldn’t see them but they were over us the entire time,” Anthony said. “I’m looking at our guide and asking what is going on. The reply is all the fighting is at the Gaza Strip and these are just protecting all of Israel and there is nothing to fear.”
The team then went to visit Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes and a garden for a devotional to be held.
“I just remember our people looking up for those fighter jets,” Anthony said, adding every stop began having to endure a complete security check.
That night, the team slept at its hotel.
“For me, this is when the trip really begins,” Anthony said. “We were going into Jerusalem.”
The team awoke to go to Mount Precipice, located just outside the southern edge of Nazareth, before traveling on to a location on the Mediterranean Sea.
Anthony said it was a place he had been to many times, but this time reminded him of the scene in “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” when after a long trip the Griswold family arrives at the amusement park to find no cars in the parking lot and the park closed.
“This parking lot is built for thousands and thousands of cars and easily a thousand buses,” he said. “I tell our guide they are closed but he says it is open and we can go in.”
Anthony said it was then he began making calls to contacts back home in the U.S. “and learning Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were getting missile strikes while our guide was telling us we were all safe.”
“By that time, the reports are out about what happened to the babies,” he said. “Reporters are crying on air and most of our people stopped watching the news. They were too traumatized by it.”
Anthony said that was the night “things began to unravel after our devotional.”
The team had spent the previous day and a half “hunkering down” in an East Jerusalem hotel not knowing it was operated by Palestinians.
“It was on this night [Wednesday] during our devotional we began getting emails saying our flight out, scheduled for Friday, had been canceled,” Anthony said. “The rug was pulled out from underneath us. Turkish Air had canceled out of Tel Aviv. None of the American carriers were flying out from there. I knew it was going to be difficult.”
He said one organization, known as Project Dynamo, called “immediately” to say they would get the team out of Israel.
Thursday morning brought bad news as the team was told Project Dynamo could in fact not get them out.
“They only move you from a ‘hot spot’ to a ‘cool spot’ and there were 200,000 Americans in Israel all of them trying to get out and many of them in much worse shape than we were,” Anthony said. “They were going to start pulling them out first.”
Anthony told the team to “start praying and call, text and email politicians and anyone they knew.”
“We didn’t know that back home they were already praying and were aware of what was going on,” he said.
Anthony refers to Thursday night as “a troubled night.”
Once again, the team met in the devotional room where Anthony told them there were multiple sources that could get them out.
His recommendation was to stay with Maranatha Tours, who the team had used to book the tour.
“They would not only get us out, but they would also get us home on their dime if we could get back to Amman,” Anthony said. “It was that night Maranatha said they had a bus that could pick us up at 8 a.m. the next day.”
Maranatha was one of four phone calls received that night. Two others were from Samaritan’s Purse and Project Dynamo.
Anthony got a fourth call from the U.S. military advising a Navy boat would be coming in that could take them to Cyprus; however, once in Cyprus the team would be among more than 30,000 seeking a limited number of fights.
The decision was made to take the Maranatha bus.
The bus delivered the team to Amman where the tour company put them up in a hotel until Sunday when they caught a flight to Istanbul, then from there to Miami where they were once again provided with hotel rooms until their flights into Birmingham on Monday, Oct. 15.
“We knew God was taking care of us and all the pieces just fit together,” Anthony said.
“I want to tell you all how we serve the ultimate provider, protector and peacegiver” said team member Anna Messer.
Messer said one of the church members found them on Google and provided some laughs adding, “God knew we would need that to get through our journey.”
She said there came a point where some in the team found themselves having to ration some of their medications.
“God found not one but two pharmacists on this trip,” Messer said. “That’s just a miracle.”
Anthony said the two pharmacists were part of the traveling team.
“We had one person with heart issues and person with memory issues and they ran out of their medicines,” Anthony explained. “I paid for a limousine — they didn’t have taxis running you could trust — to take us to a pharmacy in Amman.”
The pharmacist there spoke English and they were able to communicate and get the medications that were needed, Anthony said.
Messer praised Anthony and his wife, Jeanna, for being “calm, cool and collected — at least in front of us.”
“That peace the Bible talks about — that ultimate, wonderful peace that only He can provide supernaturally — it’s real,” she said. “We experienced it and are grateful. He was with us and in control.”
Bonita Wolfe, whose return to the church graced a recent front page of The Anniston Star, said that photograph is one of “pure joy.”
“I held everything in while we were over there,” Wolfe said. “When I got off the bus and saw everybody here at the church, I just let all my emotions out. It was pure joy to be home.”
Team member Marshall Walker said the trip would have been “an absolute disaster had the Anthonys not been there to shepherd us through this.”
“Let’s go to Israel, they said. It would be fun,” Walker said adding a touch of humor to the subject and drawing laughter from the congregation with his sarcastic humor. “Let’s fly on Turkish Airways because the food is good and they are very organized — they said.
“They lied,” he concluded with a wry chuckle.
He said the team did have the opportunity to visit some of the historic sites in Israel that were “beautiful.”
“All these things were wonderful, but unfortunately on Oct. 7 some horrible things occurred,” Walker said. “I personally never once felt my life was in a hazardous condition. But, I was concerned because people are unpredictable and we were vulnerable.”
He said God “placed His hand on us and He protected us.”
“Every time it seemed we had a way out, something would interfere and would happen,” Walker said. “God protected us again by providing a safe way out.”
“If you can’t see God’s hand in bringing us all home, I’m sorry because it’s there,” Walker said. “Everything we accomplished is because of the graciousness and mercy of God.”
“It was forecast as a trip of a lifetime — not necessarily the way we thought — but this group came home closer together than ever before and with more faith in the power of our Lord than ever before,” he said.