Back from the birthplace of Christianity

They walked where Jesus walked, renewed their baptismal vows where He is believed to have made His, and visited other sites where Bible stories unfolded.

And then they brought the excitement of the Holy Land back to their flocks in Florida.

“I think what I left with was such an excitement to come back and read scripture again,” said Rev. Susan Gray, pastor of St. Mark’s UMC, Ocala. She is in her fourth year as a pastor and was ordained as an elder in full connection last year.

Large group of United Methodist clergy in front of Jerusalem
More than 30 newly ordained clergy members join Florida Bishop Ken Carter in front of the city of Jerusalem, one of the stops the group made in a Florida Conference-sponsored trip to the Holy Land. Photos from Rev. Josh Bell.

“They [Bible stories] just come to life – seeing the sites where Mary went to get water and Jesus must have tagged along as a small boy. … It’s almost like seeing it in 3-D.”

Gray is one of 31 recently ordained clergy members and spouses that returned early this month from a 10-day trip to Israel led by Florida Bishop Ken Carter. For recent ordinands, the journey was sponsored by the Florida Conference. The bishop designated half of the 2015 Annual Conference offering to help fund the pilgrimage for clergy ordained in the past three years. In many cases, individual churches chipped in to help send the pastors’ spouses as well. 

For Carter, the trip was his fifth pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but he still carries the memories of his first and subsequent visits with him into ministry.

“I have been blessed to see people and places that have stretched my imagination and deepened my theology,” the bishop said in an email. “I have crossed tribal boundaries, listened to ancient voices, stepped in the waters of baptism, enjoyed the heaven that is Shabbat [day of rest], been overwhelmed by diverse languages, seen my neat political categories crumble and become more grateful for my heritage.”

He said he was glad to share the experience with ordinands at the outset of their ministries. 

“I can only imagine how this will shape preaching, teaching and ministry across their lifetimes. I’m grateful to the Florida Conference’s generosity that has made this pilgrimage possible.”

Carter noted that newly ordained clergy tend to be repaying education debts, raising families and settling into new communities where they have been sent to shepherd congregations while hoping that their spouses will also find employment. Without Florida Conference funding, most new clergy members would not be able to experience a Holy Land trip, he said.

Gray and Rev. Josh Bell, pastor of Spring of Life UMC, Orlando, said the gift meant a lot.

Ordinand Tony Fotsch renews baptismal vows at Jordan River, Holy Land trip
Rev. Tony Fotsch, pastor of River of Life UMC, Jacksonville, who was ordained as an elder in 2014, renews his baptismal vows at the River Jordan, with Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt and Florida Bishop Ken Carter administering the sacrament. 
Wayne Wiatt and Bishop Ken Carter immerse Rev. Susan Gray in the River Jordan
Rev. Susan Gray, pastor of St. Mark's UMC, Ocala, and 2015 ordinand, sees a longtime dream fulfilled when Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, left, and Florida Bishop Ken Carter immerse her in the River Jordan as a renewal of her baptismal vows.

“The fact that the conference was willing to take us on this trip was such a blessing,” Bell said, adding that he is grateful that his church Staff-Parish Relations Committee was willing to fund the trip for his wife, Katie, as well. Bell was ordained in June 2014 and began serving Spring of Life the following month.

For Bell and Gray, this year’s Holy Land pilgrimage was their first visit to Israel. 

“I feel spiritually refreshed and inspired from being there in these holy places,” said Bell, adding that the experience has helped shape the Lenten series he prepared for his congregation.

“I’m bringing my experience in Israel right back to the pulpit for the next several weeks.”

Like Gray, Bell said setting foot in the land of Abraham has enhanced his understanding of the Bible.

“It just gives me a deeper perspective on the places being talked about,” he said. “It makes it more tangible.”

Gray said she had long wanted to visit the Holy Land and was set to go a couple of years ago when a death in the family changed her plans.

“When I found out the bishop and the conference were going to send us to the Holy Land, I was so moved and excited,” Gray said. “It exceeded my expectations.”

She said she brought back a little water from the River Jordan, where she was immersed as a sign of recommitment to Christ, to share with her congregation. 

Another meaningful spot on the tour was the border between Israel and Palestine, where Gray found herself between an Israeli guard and his Palestinian counterpart in a part of the world known for high tension.

“There was such a surreal sense of peace,” Gray said. “I felt very safe the entire time.”

Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, Clergy Excellence director for the Florida Conference, also went on the trip.

“Many of our moments were deeply spiritual,” he said, noting that he was especially moved by a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the spot believed to be Jesus’ birthplace. Visitors climb down under the church to view the site, he said.

“It’s been preserved and protected,” Wiatt said. “It’s survived wars and conflicts.”

He said he most enjoyed watching relationships grow among young clergy.

“It was a wonderful way to bring together folks who had the common experience of ordination to begin forging lifelong friendships.”

– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.

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