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When twelve men and women from Wheaton Bible Church arrived in Israel earlier this year, they knew they had signed on for two weeks of sightseeing and outreach—but what, exactly, was in store for the members of our first Israel GO Team was far from clear.
So they were thankful to meet their ministry partners—Arabs themselves—who knew exactly how God could use twelve willing American believers to create inroads for the Gospel among those who live in the small villages and towns that dot the Israeli landscape—individuals and families who don’t know Jesus.
The members of the team learned that Jamil, their Arab host, would introduce his American companions as Christian pilgrims—followers of Jesus who had traveled far to see the ancient sites where He had lived, and to walk where He had walked.
To those living in a Muslim-dominated culture, it made perfect sense that Christ followers from America would desire to come to their land on a pilgrimage. They understood that just as a pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith, they are living in and near places that are holy sites for Christians, towns like Bethlehem and Nazareth that are so central to biblical accounts of Jesus’ life.
Jamil knew how important the concepts of pilgrimage and hospitality are in that culture and that while he had the language skills and cultural understanding needed to effectively communicate the Gospel to the villagers, nothing would gain him a hearing like the presence of these Americans.
“The people love visitors,” said Kyle Reschke, WBC’s Pastor of Sending and Outreach and a member of the GO Team, “and they are kind of fascinated by the American view of things. So even though they don’t understand much about Jesus, they welcomed us.
“And because Jamil was with us,” Kyle added, “he was welcomed to places he’d never been before.”
Early each day the team would climb into vans and head to one or more of the villages Jamil had identified as he prayed over a map of the region. As they pulled into the towns—with passengers in two vans praying—Jamil would stop near a likely individual, usually a man, and ask if his family would like to meet some Americans.
More often than not, the answer was a resounding yes. And by the time the team had climbed out of their vehicles, plastic chairs were being unstacked, and coffee was brewing. Sometimes the group was welcomed inside a home, but more often the gatherings were held outside, under the shade of a tree.
“They’d call uncles and cousins to invite them over,” Kyle said, “and their grand tradition of gracious hospitality would create an open door for us and our Arab-national partners to connect with these Arab-Israeli villagers.”
As their hosts invited the team members to tell about themselves, they had the opportunity—through their interpreter—to explain why they were in Israel.
“We’d say, ‘We wanted to travel where Jesus lived,’” Kyle explains. “Then we’d ask, ‘Do you know why Jesus is so important to us and why we would want to come to this place?’”
“They wanted to see the sights, yes,” their interpreter would explain, “but they also wanted to meet the people of this land.”
After some general greetings and conversation, typically one or more members of the group—often Lon (Allison) or team member Jeff Jacob—would share a testimony of how knowing Jesus had changed his life.
When Lon was invited to speak, he shared how Jesus had lifted a great burden of guilt he carried over the accidental death of his younger brother. Jeff, a cancer survivor, would talk about how God carried him through a life-threatening illness and brought him back to health when there had been little hope for recovery.
“Nearly every time,” Lon said, “we were able to talk about how much we love Jesus and about why we need Him and what it means to us that He is in our lives.
“And the people we met weren’t just polite listeners; they welcomed our testimonies warmly and extended our conversations.”
As the team moved from village to village, conversations continued as the Americans and their interpreter shared God-directed encounters with many Arab people, including some Bedouins, both young and old.
Seeking a Person of Peace
In one village, when there was no connection forthcoming after several attempts, the groups in each van began to pray with renewed fervor, asking God to lead them to a “person of peace,” who would invite them for a visit.
“O God,” Jamil prayed, “all we are seeing are individuals. Would You lead us to a family?”
“Within ten seconds,” Lon said, “the lead van turned a corner, and there, sitting on a bench outside their home—as if they were waiting for us—was an older man, two young men, and a woman, who we later learned was the matriarch of the family.
“Jamil rolled down the window and said, ‘I have twelve Americans who would like to have coffee with you,’” Kyle recalls.
Within minutes the group was seated on the ever-present white plastic chairs, and the woman was calling instructions to her daughters inside the house, directing them to serve refreshments. Hot coffee and bottles of juice were brought, along with bread, served with a mixture of spices, sesame seed, and olive oil for dipping.
As the team members partook of the family’s hospitality, the conversation took a familiar path, with family members asking what had brought them here and what they were enjoying during their visit.
The Americans also asked questions about the families they visited, concluding by asking if they could say a prayer of blessing over their hosts.
In this case, the team asked if they could pray for the healing of the elderly man, who had a walker and appeared ill.
“Following that question,” Kyle says, “we learned that each of the people in the group had his or her own needs they wanted us to pray for, so we did.
“At one point, the mother motioned to a very pretty young woman, whom we’ll call Miriam,” Kyle recalls. “She asked us, ‘Can you pray for my daughter?’
“Life was very hard for Miriam,” he added. “She had reached the age of twenty-five with no proposal of marriage, which, in that Muslim culture, meant that life was pretty much over for her.
“The circumstances of her life represented an extremely stressful and depressing situation.”
At that point, several of the women in the group asked permission to lay hands on the young woman. Permission was granted, and they started praying for her.
“That was one of my favorite moments of the whole trip,” Kyle said. “The ladies were praying, and our Arab partner was translating.”
“Then the young woman began to sob,” Lon added. “Not just tearing up but actually sobbing. And as the women finished praying, with no explanation this young woman says, ‘I just felt something release inside me. I felt release.’
“We believe that what she felt was an emotional healing taking place in her,” Lon said.
Later that night, as the team processed their day together, Lynne, one of the women who had prayed with Miriam, shared that up until that day, she hadn’t been entirely sure why God led her to come on the trip. Now she thought she had an answer.
“For a long time I’ve been trying to manufacture a real love for the Muslim people,” she told the group that night. “I have a heart for all people, because I know God loves them. I understand that, but I haven’t been able to feel the kind of love for Muslims that I want to have. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.
“Today,” she said, “I looked into Miriam’s eyes and said, ‘I love you.’ I said that to a Muslim woman—and I meant it.”
“Reflecting on that conversation,” Lon said, “I think two people experienced release that day. We saw healing go in both directions.”
Easter in Israel
Among other highlights of the trip was an Easter celebration, hosted by the team and their Arab partners at a local banquet hall. As the group traveled throughout the week, they had invited the people they met to join them for this Christian celebration. They hoped that as many as fifty people would show up.
On the date of the event, they were stunned when nearly three times that number came to share in the celebration and to honor the holiday so important to Christians.
“Out of that whole group of around one hundred and fifty people,” Lon explains, “there were maybe ten to twenty believers—all the rest were Arab Muslims we had met.”
Another special memory for Lon relates to a gift he received from a shopkeeper in Bethlehem, near the end of the trip.
“As we left his shop, the owner, an Arab believer who began to understand a little of why we were there, gave me a Bible. ‘Pastor,’ he said, ‘I’m not giving this to you so that you will remember me, but so that every time you see it, you will pray for the salvation of Israel.’
“I told him that I would keep it on my desk so I would see it often,” Lon said, “and remember to pray for the people of Israel.”
Commenting on the uniqueness of this group of American visitors and their emphasis on outreach, one Arab believer said, “Most Christians come here to see the ‘dead stones’ but none of the living ones.”
That Arab brother recognized that while these twelve American pilgrims visited most of the important sites—the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Transfiguration, the Jordan River, and more—they spent the majority of their time connecting with the people of Israel.
Although several in the group had taken part in previous study groups and tours of the Holy Land, the conversations they had with the “living stones of Israel” set this trip apart for them.
They are thankful for the seeds of faith that were planted and for the doors that were opened for ministry partners who will nurture those seeds in the days ahead.
Lon acknowledges that the combination of hospitality and evangelism that was so natural in the towns and villages the team visited likely wouldn’t work nearly as well in America’s individualistic culture.
“Even so,” he added, “as I continue to pray for Israel, I’m also going to try to share more coffee and iced tea with my neighbors. I’m going to be out and about in my neighborhood, asking God for five-minute conversations and for
opportunities to find common ground with people on issues that affect all our lives.
“The experiences of this trip,” he said, “have forever changed my feelings for Israel, and at the same time, they have deepened my longing for courage and wisdom to gently and lovingly speak of my love for the living Jesus.”