GALENA-When the Rev. Jim McCrea of First Presbyterian Church in Galena first fielded a request last spring to lead a trip to Israel, his immediate reaction was no. He'd visited the Holy Land twice before, once as a student at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in 1995 and then again in 1999 with two other pastors from Rockford and a group of 66 people.
McCrea thought his two visits were enough, but eventually, with some convincing, he agreed to give it another shot if they could recruit enough interest. And this time, unlike the times before, his wife, Delight, would join the group.
McCrea spread the word near and far, contacting the pastors with whom he'd traveled previously and getting interest from one, now in New Jersey.
Eventually there was a nice sized group-eight from Galena, two from Rockford and 15 from New Jersey.
"We came together great," said McCrea. "Everyone got along tremendously."
Joining him and Delight from Galena were Roy Clingman, Connie and Dan Consedine, Nancy Mangrum, Lynn Giles and Isobel Bell.
Travel plans were made with Imagine Travel and the dates set from Oct. 24-Nov. 2.
Off to Turkey
After taking off from Chicago at 10 p.m., the first stop on this group's adventure was in Istanbul, Turkey, where the plane landed in Europe and the group drove across a bridge to spend the night in Asia.
The following day, in whirlwind fashion, the visitors toured three major sites, all within walking distance of one another.
The first stop was Saint Sophia Church, a major church in the Byzantine Empire which is now a museum filled with beautiful mosaics.
From there they moved to the Blue Mosque, a tannish gray building on the exterior that is stunning on the interior, according to McCrea. The building is filled with Muslim art, an absolutely gorgeous sight.
The final stop in Istanbul was the Topkapi Palace, essentially a city in a city during the Ottoman Empire.
With the three sites fresh in their minds, the group was ready for their final destination, Israel.
In the Holy Land
After landing in Tel Aviv, the group stayed the night there. The next day they met up with their tour guide to make their first stop at Caesarea Maritima, a port built by Herod the Great on the Mediterranean. McCrea said he was impressed with how much had changed in the 12 years since he'd visited the location, how much more has been recovered.
The next stop was Mt. Carmel and then Megiddo, likely one of the most fought over pieces of land for control of the trade routes. The group visited Nazareth Village, a small re-creation of life in the village during Jesus's time. They drove through Cana before arriving at their hotel in Tiberius.
There are three types of places in Israel, McCrea explained, places where events happened for sure, places where events may or may not have happened but the event happened near that site, and finally, places selected randomly. The group experienced all three categories during their visit.
The touring group, he said, was blessed to have an excellent guide who was constantly on the phone, helping to avoid crowds at certain locations as they traveled the country.
Next up was a swing through northern Israel as the group traveled very close to the Lebanese and Syrian borders.
They visited Tel Dan, the location of a shrine set up in about 925 B.C. so that people wouldn't travel to Jerusalem but would instead stay in the northern region. The group then visited Caesarea Philippi, the source of the Jordan River, and then the Golan Heights.
Continuing their tour, the group visited Tabgha, the traditional spot on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus fed 5,000.
The following day started at the Mount of the Beatitudes, the site of the Sermon on the Mount.
At the southern edge of the Sea of Galilee, where the Jordan River comes out, McCrea did baptisms or reaffirmations of baptisms.
In Capernaum, they visited Peter's house and the synagogue built during the fourth century.
Other points of interest were Gideon's Spring, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum and the Israel Museum, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed.
"Everybody loved it," said McCrea.