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Local Pastors Visit Israel, See The Bible Come to Life; “There Was So Much to Take In!”

Local pastors/ministers from the High Country area during their recent tour of Israel are pictured at The Mount of Olives looking back toward The Dome of The Rock. L-R: Guide Foteh Mickel, Phillip Greene, Chad Cole, Michael Odom, Bob Garbett, Jonathan Arnette, Michael McKee, Will Scott and Michael Bozeman

By Sherrie Norris

For those who may have wondered what it would be like to walk where Jesus walked, to drink from Jacob’s well or to look out in awe over the expanse of the Jordan River or The Sea of Galilee, a local bi-vocational pastor who also works for a travel agency can help you see it all first-hand. 

In fact, Chad Cole, pastor of Chestnut Dale Baptist Church in Newland, recently took a trip to Israel during which he led a group of his fellow pastors through those very scenarios that most of us have only read about.

“It was like drinking water from a fire hose,” Cole described. “There was so much to take in.”

It wasn’t that they were so rushed, he said, “But that it was just so overwhelming to see the things that we saw — physically seeing the things we have studied, preached and taught to others over the years.”

The group of pastors experienced almost 60 sites in six days, returning to their hotel each evening “mentally exhausted and spiritually filled.” 

Pastor Mike McKee is drinking water from Jacob’s Well, where Jesus met the Samaritan woman.

When asked about the highlights and blessings of the journey, Cole said, there were so many, but what stood out the most to him personally was the reaction of his fellow ministers.

“As the group leader, and having been there twice before, it brought me so much joy to watch as these men would search for words to describe what they had just learned or seen,” he shared. “To hear them choke up as they stood and read scripture in the place where the scripture was written was something special. And, to not hear a single word from any of them once we got back on the bus to move to the next location, I knew God was dealing with their hearts each time. He was revealing Himself to them at every stop of the way.”

At the same time, Cole added, “I believe I was blessed more than the others, not in a selfish way, but being a small part of helping each one of these Godly men grow in their knowledge and relationship with their Savior.”

Another special experience for them all, he added, was their time spent at The Garden Tomb. 

“We put aside denominations and theology and sat together as brothers in Christ and observed the ordinance of communion.”

A seasoned traveler himself, Cole has been to 28 different countries and 46 US states and described this most recent trip as having been the least stressful of all for him, personally.

“Even with all the restrictions placed on travel, there was a peace that passeth all understanding,” he said. Logistically it was a slight challenge for Wilcox Travel Agency as it was the first trip of its kind since the pandemic began. 

“There were several new hurdles to jump over so that everyone would be able to travel over, and come back home without delays, Cole said. “The Wilcox Travel staff in the Asheville office (Robin Cady and Ivania Escalante), along with NET Tours in Israel, worked tirelessly to make this as smooth a trip as possible.” 

Even so, Cole said, none of his group had any feelings of fear or uncertainty while traveling during a pandemic — and they all encourage others who love to study the Bible to make at least one trip to Israel and watch it unfold before their eyes. 

“As a Pastor, these trips help me better understand what I am studying, as well as help me present the message in a more vivid way. It helps me paint a picture as I preach.”

His fellow pastors and travelers were happy to share their perspectives, which closely compared to that of Cole.

Jewish tombs facing the Dome of the Rock

In The Epicenter of Judeo-Christian Faith

Michael McKee Pastor of Newland Presbyterian Church, gave an in-depth review of the trip, much of what he shared with his congregation upon returning, but condensed here for publication.

“A bump, a bounce, and a loud rush of wind announced our arrival to Tel Aviv, Israel. After 10.5 hours in the sky, we had come back to earth, an incarnation of sorts in the land of the incarnation,” he described.

They were met by Foteh, their  guide, and began their tour in a comfortable van upward from the coastal plain toward the hill country of Judea, approaching, after 45 minutes, the holy city of Jerusalem. 

“As we ascended toward that place which for millennia has existed as the epicenter of Judeo-Christian faith, we did what people have done for just as long when drawing near to the temple for the thrice-annual feasts: we read aloud the Psalms of Ascent, numbered 120-134. As we concluded the reading, hearing the words, ‘May the Lord bless you from Zion, He who made heaven and earth,’ we crested the hill and looked directly at the Mount of Olives where, Foteh said, Jesus ascended to heaven. “That is also the place where Jesus will return,” he whispered. And our eyes began to search the clouds. We had arrived.” 

During the group’s six- day tour, Mckee said, they fulfilled their goal to see as many sites as possible, putting in 12-15 hour days, rising as early as 5 a.m., and collapsing into bed immediately after supper.”

McKee highlighted a few of the places they went, tracing out the life of Christ — as it moved from Bethlehem to Calvary.

Perhaps most moving, McKee said, was the hospitality of the Christians they encountered. 

“Bethlehem now sits in the West Bank, in Palestine, and the number of Christians there totals maybe 700. Many of them work at a local olive wood factory, which produces all manner of Christian carvings and religious items for tourists,” he said. “I had two conversations of some depth – one with a man named Chris, and the other Elias (Elijah). Independently, they paused at the end of our conversations, looking at me with their dark eyes, and asked with great seriousness for us to pray for them, and for us to pray for the peace of the world. They live in the place where the Prince of Peace  became human, and they carve olive branches for a living, which in Scripture serve as signs of peace, but they also live as religious minorities in a land fraught with religious and political conflict — and they long for green pastures in which to rest.” 

He said one of the most shocking experiences of the whole trip was to see for the first time the sharp dividing line between the green hills surrounding Jerusalem, and the beginning of the Judean wilderness to the east.

“It looked as if a kid had drawn a picture and divided it into parts with a crayon, lush greenery on one side, harsh barren desert on the other. So, down into the wilderness we went. Down, quite literally, to the lowest place on the face of the earth. Down past Bedouin herdsmen who still live like Abraham, surviving on the milk of their goats and the sugary dates they consume along with it. Down into craters and down past dunes, down into rough places whose only point of comparison in my experience are the badlands of South Dakota.”

All of this, he emphasized, was a mere 10 miles from Jerusalem, but like a different world: the wilderness into which David fled when Saul attempted his murder; where David sought shelter, and eventually found it at a place called Ein Gedi, where surprising water bubbles and flows out of the barren hills and splashed down rocks, and brought to life a wadi still home to a few trees and desert Ibex — a crevice of green in an ocean of sand.”

They floated in the waters of the Dead Sea and covered their skin with the mineral-rich mud, dipped into the water of the Jordan where Christ was baptized and purified all the waters, he said. At the Sea of Galilee, they sailed beneath a cloudless sky and remembered the storms that Jesus quieted, and the winds which obeyed his command, and the waters which bore his feet as he walked to his disciples in the night. 

“Here was the land of miracles. To the east was the place where he cast out demons into swine. Beside this place was Bethsaida, where he called disciples. To the North was the Mount of Beatitudes, where he sat and taught and preached to the crowds. Beside of the mountain was Capernaum, the town he called his own, the place where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and all who came to him. To the left of Capernaum was Magdala, the home of Mary, and there, beside it was the place where Peter glimpsed the resurrected Christ cooking breakfast over a charcoal fire, asking the denying disciple if he loved him. Here, in Galilee, we can see that the call of our lives is to drop our nets and follow the Savior.” 

 “Every night, we went back up to Jerusalem. For it, indeed, is the center. Jerusalem,” and where, he said, so many events recorded in the Bible took place — up to and including Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. 

On their last day, as the group departed Jerusalem and then watched city lights grow small beneath the wings of their plane, as they said goodbye to a whirlwind tour and struggled to understand what it all meant and what God was continuing to say.

Seeing it All First-hand

 Bob Garbett, interim pastor at First Baptist Church of Crossnore, said it was a great blessing to see the Bible come alive in the area where the events took place and how the events are connected to the land — particularly in the Old Testament.

When asked about any challenges, he concurred with the others, in saying that it was just hard to take it all in.

“One of the highlights to me was the Shepherd’s Field, because these were the fields were David watched over his father’s flocks and how much of what he wrote in the Psalms was impressed upon him,” Garbett shared. “These were the fields where the angels announced the birth of Christ. So much history from both testaments covered in one place . . .Just being able to see firsthand and learning how much of what we’ve always seen or heard isn’t really how it is.”

As an example, Garbett, described, “The Jordan River is way different than any baptistry painting I’ve ever seen. 

With “absolutely no fear or uncertainty,” Garbett said he would encourage every believer who can make the trip to do so. “Also, any church should consider sending their pastor.”   

Southern steps outside the temple, the exact location where Jesus taught.

Walking Where Jesus Walked

Mission’s Pastor for The Rock Church of Boone, Jonathan Arnette said that seeing the Holy Land was amazing. “To see the places where my Savior walked was a truly awesome experience. My faith was set ablaze and the Bible truly came to life in a new way. I couldn’t have gone with a better group of people. The trip was well done. First class in every way. Our tour guide brought every location to life. We were blessed to get to see many real locations of Bible stories. I got to ride on the Sea of Galilee where my Savior walked on water. I saw the valley where David killed Goliath. I saw Calvary spilt from an earthquake where my Savior died for us all. But, a truly wonderful experience was celebrating Jesus through communion at the garden tomb with my brothers in Christ. Another amazing experience was being baptized in the River Jordan, just like my Savior before me.”

Arnette said he had no fear while traveling. “The safest place to be is in God’s will, and it is God’s will to pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I felt safer in Israel than Boone.” 

He said every Christian needs to visit Israel. 

“It is a life- changing experience. I can’t put it into words, because it is too transcendent of an experience. It must be lived. It must be felt. Experienced. I’m a different person now than before. The Bible jumps off the page and my faith is more alive than ever. I feel like I learned more in a week in Israel than I did in a four- year bible college degree.”

Pastors from the High Country share a sacred time of communion at the garden tomb.

Putting Eyes To My Faith

Phillip Greene, another bi-vocational pastor serving Newland Christian Church, well- known for his “day job” at WECR Radio in Newland, also said it was a real blessing to see the land and places he had read about, as well as “putting eyes to my faith and truly feeling overwhelmed by the Spirit of God in the walking of the land so many saints had traveled before.”

The experience, Greene said, was “overwhelming, but in a great way.”

“I’m still searching for the words to fully describe all we saw and experienced and challenged us to remain faithful through all the trials that seem to keep coming up — but blessed by seeing them through.”  

Greene said he would encourage anyone to visit the Holy Land who wants to see their faith become sight — “And watch the Scripture come alive!” 

Still Processing It All 

Mike Bozeman who serves at The Rock Church in Boone said he was blessed to go on the trip to Israel, and like his fellow pastors and traveling companions, he’s still processing all the things they did and saw.

“From the Valley of Elah where you could literally see David slaying a giant, to The Jordan River where I was baptized, I cannot put into words the experience or how the Bible jumped to life as we saw the customs and walked where Jesus walked. I will forever be changed. I would recommend this trip to everyone; you will be blown away by the tour guide’s knowledge and by the amazing food you will be served.”

This picture shows one of the caves at the shepherd’s field. 

A Bucket List Trip

Mike Odom who attends Siam Baptist Church in nearby Elizabethton, Tenn., said, “It was a blessing to get to mark the number one item off my bucket list. I was blessed to see the actual places where my Savior walked and lived while He was on this Earth.” 

He called it an incredible trip. “After each day, I thought it couldn’t get any better. Then, the next day would surpass the previous one with the things that we heard and saw. When I read my Bible now, my mind flashes back to the things I saw there that relate to that scripture.” 

Odom had no fear about traveling. “When it’s my time, it’s my time,” he said. “If God’s ready to take me home He can do it here at home, in Israel, on a plane or any different place.”

Like the others, he encourages anyone to take this trip if the opportunity arises. “It’s something you’ll never forget. Wilcox Travel is excellent to work with and gave us an incredible trip from a top notch tour guide, an awesome van to travel on and a wonderful hotel to stay in.”  

Planning Your Own Trip To the Holy Land

For anyone who might be interested in planning a similar trip, or even hosting a trip to Israel, Chad Cole is available to answer any questions and will be happy to help you arrange your journey.

He may be reached at Wilcox Travel, located at 4417 NC Hwy 105 S. in Boone. Call 828-210-8166, Toll free 800-438-5828 ext. 306, email

chad@wilcoxtravel.com  or visit www.wilcoxtravel.com

 The Valley of Elah, where David slew Goliath, as recorded in 1 Samuel 17.