By Toya Richards Hill
Something transforming happened to The Rev. Benny Williams when he walked the land Jesus walked and witnessed communities where Christ ministered.
The pastor went to the Middle East for a two-week journey at the end of May as part of the Holy Land Pastoral Renewal Program offered through Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Williams departed the United States worn down and bitter about the slate of young men being gunned down in his community. He needed a breakthrough.
“I had reached a point where I was extremely angry, but I didn’t know who to be angry with,” said Williams, who leads Mt. Nebo Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. The Bible tells of God’s power to heal, yet the minister wasn’t witnessing such healing in his community, he said.
“I had so much bitterness against what God is saying in his Word,” Williams recalled.
Then he and the other ministers on the trip visited Capernaum, where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, who then immediately got up and served (Mark 1: 29-31).
“When I looked at Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, and then the next thing we were going to was the synagogue, it made sense,” Williams said. “It brought the community that Jesus ministered to together. It came alive.”
“When I saw it for myself it literally was love right there,” he said. “The understanding of community, the understanding of the power of God’s grace and his mercy working in a community” was revealed.
Williams returned to the U.S. and wrote a paper called “Healing from across the Street.” He also has recommitted himself to addressing the violence in his community and is working with victims’ mothers and perpetrators’ mothers “to tell their stories.”
The pilgrimage “was for me ongoing. I feel as though I am still on it,” Williams said.
Dr. Patricia K. Tull, A.B. Rhodes Professor of Old Testament at Louisville Seminary and the organizer of the Holy Land trip, said that is precisely what the program is intended to do.
“The purpose of it is to renew the spiritual life of pastors and deepen their sense of their own calling,” she said.
Supported through a grant from the CF Foundation, which has been sponsoring pastoral trips to the Holy Land since the 1990s, the program is designed for mid-career pastors and brings together the pilgrimage with study, lectures, shared discussions, and worship.
It is a contemplative experience “to connect with the land where our faith was born,” Tull said.
The group not only visited ancient pilgrimage sites such as the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but also “we would read scriptures that were related to the places we visited and they could hear them in a new light,” she said.
“The participants were provided a lot of flexible time and a lot of time to reflect individually and together about all that they experienced,” Tull said.
The group of 20 people represented nine different denominations and served churches with memberships that ranged between 35 and more than 4,000 people. Participants also hailed from various states, including California, West Virginia, and New York.
Parish ministers who care for others constantly “can easily lose site of the passion for ministry and the reason why they became ministers in the first place,” Tull said. They need space to renew “their sense of Sabbath and their love for God and for Scripture,” she said.
The Rev. Dr. Barbara Gaddis, associate pastor at Collegiate Presbyterian Church in Ames, Iowa, said the Holy Land trip helped confirm her call.
“I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the call to ministry,” said Gaddis, who has been serving at her church for about six years.
She said two years prior to the trip she’d had a transformative experience following the death of the church’s head of staff, who had first affirmed her call, but that the Holy Land pilgrimage “just sort of put the last nail in it.”
“This is really where God is asking me to be,” said Gaddis, a former small business owner and marriage and family therapist. “This [trip] is just a confirmation of that.”
Tull said the Holy Land program at Louisville Seminary has been renewed and that applications are being accepted through the end of January 2009 for a trip that will take place in the summer. Those interested can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.