A group of 12 travelers from First Baptist Church in Knoxville went to Israel to follow the historical footsteps of Jesus, and now is exploring alternative ways to get out of a country that has become a war zone.
While the group might be able to depart on its scheduled flight Oct. 21, armed conflict with Hamas could render its travel plans impossible.
“We are exploring options for alternative travel in the event that we realize even where we are is unsafe,” Senior Pastor Brent McDougal told Knox News Oct. 9 from Jerusalem, where he said the group was safe. “In the meantime, we plan to continue with as much of our itinerary until we believe that it’s just untenable to stay … we’re seeking to be wise in our decisions and ask people to pray for us.”
On Oct. 9, the First Baptist Church group was exploring other options to get home as major U.S. air carriers suspended flights to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and Israel mobilized for a historic fight in its decades-long conflict with Palestinians living in occupied territories.
The group is scheduled to fly out of Tel Aviv but might seek options for a flight from another country or leave sooner if violence reaches Jerusalem. For now, they are enclosed in the Old City section of Jerusalem, where sacred sites like the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock mosque rest within ancient walls.
Knoxville church group had just arrived when Hamas launched attack
McDougal and 11 other church members arrived in Tel Aviv on Oct. 6 and the next day found themselves only miles from missile strikes as the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas launched an all-out attack from the skies and on the ground. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war in a forceful counterstrike.
“It’s been eye-opening to be so close to the violence that has affected daily life for both Jewish people and Palestinians,” McDougal said. “We feel great sadness for the violence that is happening and we know that there’s incredible suffering on both sides.”
At least 700 people have been killed in Israel and at least 400 have been killed in Gaza, the territory controlled by Hamas that borders Israel in the south, according to the Associated Press. Photos from Gaza City and bordering towns in Israel show mass destruction and loss of life, as Hamas fighters killed and kidnapped civilians, and Palestinians in Gaza were killed in a counterattack.
In Jerusalem, the First Baptist Church group has seen firsthand how Israel is mobilizing for war, with sirens and buses of Israeli reservists armed for battle, said Alan Williams, a retired WVLT anchor on the trip who spoke with CNN’s Abby Phillips on Oct. 8.
“We’re not alone here. I know there’s a lot of groups that come from all over the world that do the same thing that we’re doing here, from (America) or different countries,” Williams told Phillips. “So, we’re all stuck. We’re all in the same boat here. So, we’re all looking for ways to get out.”
Why the Tennessee church group is in Israel
First Baptist Church is participating in the Footsteps of Jesus Experience, a spiritual pilgrimage led by pastor and author Bob Rognlien and his wife Pam. McDougal said it’s the first time the church has joined the trip, though it has taken members to Israel before. The 14-day itinerary takes pilgrims through the life of Jesus, from his birth in Bethlehem to his baptism in the River Jordan and his crucifixion outside Jerusalem.
After seeing the breakout of war firsthand, the church will likely put a pause on any future trips to Israel.
“I do think that will be some time before we consider a return trip, because we value the safety of our members and friends who would be participants,” McDougal said. “But we hope to be able to return at some point because the experience of being in the same place where Jesus walked is valuable as a pilgrimage experience.”
The violent new war has led to an outpouring of support worldwide both for Israelis and Palestinians. Israel’s defense minister said the country would lay a “complete siege” to Gaza, preventing water, food and electricity from entering the Hamas-controlled territory.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the U.S. would provide Israel, a critical ally in the Middle East, with military aid. The State Department said Oct. 9 that at least nine Americans were among those killed in the weekend attacks.
For McDougal and the First Baptist group, the conflict is yet another way of traveling back in time.
“It’s helped me to have a window into the current situation in Israel, but also given insight into the world that Jesus inhabited, with so much pain, conflict and disruption,” McDougal said.
Daniel Dassow is a growth and development reporter focused on technology. Phone 423-637-0878. Email [email protected].
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