“Moving, humbling, awe-inspiring and transforming.”
That’s the short version of how Mehoopany United Methodist Church Pastor Josh Yorks describes his recent pilgrimage in Israel.
In late February, Yorks joined a group of Christian pastors from different religious denominations for a 10-day trip put together through the Knights Templar Holy Land Pilgrimage.
The organization has been running the pilgrimage for over 40 years, Yorks said. Each state recommends their own pastors to go, and to be eligible for the pilgrimage in Pennsylvania, pastors must be full-time clergy for at least one year who have never been to Israel and have at least 10 years of ministry left.
“As they put it, this is an investment in your ministry and this is intended to enhance the ministry of the pastors that go so they can bring back more knowledge and more color to the Bible as it were,” he said. “I was fortunately one of the three from the state that got sent.”
All together, Yorks spent eight days traveling to various historic, archaeological and biblical sites throughout Israel. This included Megiddo, Masada, Capernaum and Caesarea, as well as Galilee, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Mount of Transfiguration, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Yorks also visited Dome of the Rock, the Dead Sea and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built over where the tomb of Jesus is believed to be and right next door to where the crucifixion of Jesus occurred.
“We visited different sites there and learned a lot about the historical significance of the places, the biblical background,” he said. “It was basically a seminary course in eight days.”
In addition to learning, the trip involved a lot of walking.
“The shortest day of walking was probably four and a half miles,” he said.
For Yorks, some of the most memorable parts of the pilgrimage were doing a baptismal renewal in the Jordan River and participating in a church service with the rest of the group. On the one day he had to himself, he went through Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem, which was intense and a “great adventure.”
“The whole thing was very moving and meaningful in general. I’ve wanted to go to Israel for years and it is a very special thing,” he said.
The pilgrimage also gave Yorks an opportunity to see religious and cultural differences within his group and the world.
In addition to some Methodist pastors, Yorks traveled with Anglican-Romans, Lutherans, Baptists, free Christians and others. Besides visiting sites, they prayed, read scripture and sang together.
“It was very interesting. We had what’s considered ‘low church’ and ‘high church’ working together,” he explained. “A good example of high church would be Roman Catholic, and so there’s very ritually-minded people and then there’s low church, like Baptists, who have no form in ritual, really.”
As for culture in Israel, Yorks said the predominant religions are Islam and Judaism depending on the area, and kosher and halal food offerings are very common.
“It was surprising, some of the areas that we saw tension in,” he said. “For the most part, it was safer than over here, which would surprise people.”
When he traveled from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, a wall with a security gate had a big sign that said Israelis were not allowed to travel into Bethlehem. At the gate, cars were searched, which turned a short seven-mile trip into almost an hour, and he said it was common to see people carrying big guns around.
This experience reminded him of how freedoms in the U.S. differ from Israel, but he never felt unsafe or worried during his time there.
He also enjoyed bartering in the markets and brought back gifts for his congregation at Mehoopany United Methodist.
Returning to Mehoopany, Yorks has already begun incorporating what he’s learned from the pilgrimage into his sermons, and he said he would love to organize a trip to Israel with the people from his congregation in the future.
He also plans to host a program at the church to discuss the trip and gather photos he took during the trip into books to use during Bible studies.
One of the organizers of the trip told Yorks that he still feels impacted by his first trip to Israel in the 1980s. Yorks said he believes his trip will have a similar impact.
“It was just a very interesting thing that will affect me for years to come,” he said.