When Madison Lilly returns to college in a few days, she’ll have an incredible summer to remember and share.
Lilly not only participated in a Holy Land trip with other United Methodists June 28-July 7. She was baptized in the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized.
“It was 8 a.m. when we got there,” she remembers. “When I came up from the water, a white bird flew down from the trees. I was there with people I never met, but we felt like family.”
The college student was one of 54 participants in a Holy Land trip led by Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett last month. Travelers represented two United Methodist conferences – Holston and North Alabama – and included children as well as adults, lay members as well as clergy.
The itinerary included Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes, Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Masada, and the Dead Sea. The travelers said each day was packed to the gills with destinations, interlaced with devotions to connect travelers with the stories they have read, heard, shared.
“I’m a visual learner,” said the Rev. Chris Brown, senior pastor at Colonial Heights United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tennessee. “We preach on this every Sunday. Returning and seeing it again with colleagues never fails to bring me so much excitement and recharges my batteries for preaching.”
While Brown made his sixth trip to the Holy Land this summer, most travelers in the Holston-North Alabama group made the pilgrimage for the first time. The Rev. Daniel Bradley said he was interested when Bishop Wallace-Padgett emailed an invitation to clergy and laity late last year. However, he initially dismissed the opportunity when his district superintendent asked if he wanted to go. “Lord, no, I can’t afford that,” he said.
Through scholarships and donations that made it possible, Bradley was able to walk the paths that Jesus walked this summer and also experience his first airplane ride.
“The closest I’ve gotten to traveling that far is Lake Junaluska,” said Bradley. He is pastor at Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church in Bishop, Virginia, and Mt. Hermon United Methodist Church in Bandy, Virginia.
Each traveler described different highlights of their pilgrimages. Bishop Wallace-Padgett said she "loved watching the faces of participants light up when they had an especially meaningful spiritual moment on the trip. Though where and how often this happened varied with each person, there were many of these moments during the pilgrimage. Without exception each participant was resilient, flexible and deeply engaged in the trip.”
Wallace-Padgett said she traveled to Israel twice before being elected a bishop and five times as a bishop leading groups from the conferences she serves. "This is the first time I have led a group including clergy and laity from two conferences.” Wallace-Padgett has served as resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference since 2012 and of Holston Conference since September 2021.
United Methodist bishops often lead church members on Holy Land tours, as Bishop Dindy Taylor and Bishop James Swanson did prior to Wallace-Padgett. The cost for this year’s trip, organized by Educational Opportunities, was more than $4,000 per person.
For Lilly, her baptism in the Jordan River on the first full day of the tour was definitely a highlight. A member of First United Methodist Church in Narrows, Virginia, Lilly planned to be baptized by the first pastor she ever knew. That pastor was the Rev. Chris Brown, who served the Narrows church at his first appointment when Lilly was 5 years old.
“Madison is so full of life,” Brown said. “Just to know her at 5 or 6 and to be there in that moment was so special.”
Another highlight for Lilly, who traveled with her mother, was a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem’s Old City. A rising sophomore majoring in cognitive behavioral psychology at Washington & Lee University, Lilly said her goal is to attend medical school. She was moved when Brown and Clay Holt, another Holston traveler, prayed for her and her future at the altar. See Brown's video of Holy Sepulchre.
“They blessed my hands and the work I hope to do, and prayed for healing,” she said.
Bradley counted the Sea of Galilee, Masada and the “teaching steps” at Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City as sites having the most impact for him.
“The things I thought I would look forward to the most were not the case,” he said, "such as Jesus’ birthplace or where he was crucified and buried." Instead, Bradley was surprised by “the paths that Jesus traveled. They were rough. There was nothing easy about his journey.” See Brown's video of Sea of Galilee.
For many participants, the trip to the Holy Land was not an easy journey either. “This trip was definitely not a vacation,” said the Rev. John Graves, a pastor at the Bristol Parish in Bristol, Virginia. “Several in our overall group … managed to catch mild cases of COVID. The sites we visited were often stiflingly hot, crowded, confusing, and overwhelming to mind and body.”
Graves and other travelers also described exhausting, chaotic flight delays and temperatures of, for example, 102 degrees at the Dead Sea. “And also elevation changes,” said Lilly. “Most of us had just gotten off a 12-hour flight, so our ears were definitely popping.”
The challenges of the trip ended up being part of the experience, Graves explained, citing Luke 9. “Our Lord wasn't going to the holy city to make new friends, enjoy a vacation, to have an educational experience or a spiritual retreat,” he said. “He was going there to face opposition, condemnation, and ultimately the cross.”
At times discouraged by the rigors of flying, Bradley said he returned home exhausted but grateful (just in time to deal with severe flooding in his area).
“I thought it would be a once in a lifetime experience for me, but I would do it again,” he said. “I would have liked for my mind to be like a sponge so I can take it all in. I’m so thankful that people saw to it that a little country preacher from Bishop, Virginia, got to go on this trip.”
Holston Conference clergy participants on the Holy Land trip included: Rev. Linda Bass, Rev. Chris Black, Rev. Daniel Bradley, Rev. Chris Brown, Rev. Roy Dalton, Rev. Kimberly Dunn, Rev. David Fugatt, Rev. John Graves, Rev. Jerry Jones, Rev. Amy Nutt, Rev. Sharon Wright, and Rev. Michael Vaughn.
Sign up for a free weekly subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 842 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.