The 2019 South Carolina Synod Holy Land Study Tour

Friends from across the SC Synod and beyond had the amazing opportunity to journey together across the Holy Land from December 27, 2018 through January 9, 2019. This study tour was led by Dr. Monte Luker, The Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies Instructor, who took our group of 30 to places like Caesarea-by-the-Sea, which was built as the imperial center for the Roman government, The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, Eucharist on the Mount of the Beatitudes, Bethsaida, Capernaum, Tabgha which is the church that commemorates the feeding of the 5000. All this in the first two days of the tour!

We went on to visit Tel Dan, Caesarea Philippi and the Golan Heights in the northern region. We participated in the affirmation of baptism at the Jordan River. We spent time in the Dead Sea and explored Masada as well as the Dead Sea caves and the southern region.

Our study tour took us to Holy Sepulcher Church, the Mount of Olives, Old City Jerusalem, the Western Wall, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the Pool of Siloam, the Upper Room, Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and many other amazing sites in and around Jerusalem. We worshipped at Redeemer Lutheran Church with brothers and sisters from around the world. On our final day we were in Bethlehem and Shepherd’s Field where the Christian story began.

The awe and wonder of walking in places where Jesus walked is truly hard to describe, but add to that the opportunity we had as a group of Seminary Students, Pastors, Deacons and Church Leaders to learn from one another as we traversed this awesome Holy Land, and you get a Journey of a Lifetime. This special opportunity to travel and learn together will come up again for the SC Synod hosted trip in December 2021 – January 2022. I hope you will pray about it and start saving your money now so you can join your sisters and brothers from across the SC Synod on that Journey. It is open to everyone, and it promises to be incredible and life-changing!

I asked our SC Candidates to share some of their thoughts and reflections on this Journey. Some of them were kind enough to send me a few thoughts about what inspired their travels. You can read their reflections below.

Pastor Ginny Aebischer,
SC Synod Assistant to the Bishop

There truly aren’t words to describe how in awe I am of my time in the Holy Land. It has impacted me in ways that I haven’t even figured out yet, and in ways that are too powerful for words. To be on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on water, looking around at the various places where he walked and shared himself with humanity brought stories I had heard since I was a child to life in brand new ways. To walk where Jesus walked, and to sail where Jesus… well, walked also, and to wade in the same river that Jesus was baptized in while affirming my own baptism heightened my sense of call in a way I hadn’t foreseen.

One thing in particular that stuck out to me was the border between Israel and Jordan, right in the middle of the Jordan River. The contrast between the beauty of baptisms and affirmations of different denominations going on at once and the manmade separation that ran between us and those on the other side of the river was harsh. Jesus came, bringing people together and joining us as one body, but we still have much work to do. The wall between Israel and Palestine stands, a symbol of division and isolation, ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. The holocaust museum in Jerusalem is flooding with stories of brokenness and separation brought by human selfishness and greed, by lines of separation that we draw in between ourselves and “the other.” These manmade separations are all around us, everywhere we turn. There is hope still, though. We are called to bring forth God’s mission of unity and restoration here and now. A panel in the Holocaust museum read these words, written by Kurt Tucholsky: “A country is not just what it does—it is also what it tolerates.” This is the same for us as a body of Christ, too. We are responsible not only for our actions, but for our lack of actions as well. As we look to Christ in hope for the restoration that is both here and to come, we rest in God’s peace and continue to fight for it to be seen clearly in all nations by all people.

Rebekah Swygert

No other synod (that I know of) supports its candidates financially as the South Carolina Synod does. I feel privileged to be a candidate in the South Carolina Synod and to visit the Holy Land through the Synod’s generosity. Making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was truly life-changing. Every time I travel I enjoy new sights and experiences, but this trip was different. The stories that I have heard since I could remember— Jesus’s birth narrative, Jesus walking on water, the demon legion and the pigs story, Jesus calming the storm, the Annunciation… (the list goes on)—really came alive right before our eyes.

Early on in the trip, Pastor Ginny Aebischer reminded us to engage our senses. We were invited to taste the local cuisine, see where Jesus walked, touch the waters of the Jordan River, hear the local Muslim call to prayer, and smell the earthy smells in the aqueducts and caverns that we explored. I made it my business to try and take in as much of the Holy Land that I could, knowing that this trip is, and could be, a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

I was most surprised by what I saw during this trip. Most of my imagined biblical scenes were not as they were in reality. For example, Mary possibly lived in a cave! Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb were so close together that they are now in the same building! I have always imagined the Nativity scene as a barn with hay and pigs and farm animals, but that, too, probably was a cave! Now when I read the words “Bethlehem,” “Jerusalem,” “Israel,” or “Galilee,” I see totally different things in my mind’s eye. I was also deeply moved by what I saw at the Holocaust Museum, specifically, the Children’s Memorial. I could not hold in my tears for the 1.5 Million children that perished during the Nazi regime. It broke my heart to review the atrocities that both children and adults endured, but it was a unique pain to know that the children probably did not know much about what was going on. Their eyes were veiled in innocence, and they had no chance at life. They could no longer grow and change as children do. They could no longer play and prosper. They were brutally murdered. And as for the people that deny the Holocaust happened… I just don’t understand that.

Just like my seminary studies, I will pull from what I learned in the Holy Land for the rest of my ministry. Instead of there being “no room left in the inn” in Jesus’s birth narrative, Dr. Luker said that the words that are used in that sentence actually point to there being no room left in the guest room of Mary or Joseph’s parents’ house. This makes sense because if everyone in town came to be registered, I am sure it would be hard to find a place to stay!
It was good for me to review the current cultural/political state of Israel and its surrounding territories. There is a wall, much like the Berlin Wall, that separates Israel from Palestine. About half of our group ate dinner with different Palestinian Christian families, and they had a lot to share with us. Because they are Palestinian, although they are Christians, they only get to visit Holy sites during Christmas and Easter, since Palestinians are not allowed past the wall into Israel. Hearing personal accounts of what it is like to live with a wall separating two peoples made me pause and think about where America is headed with its plans of building a wall. I hope one day I can return to Israel, and hopefully, by then, their wall will be gone.

Natalie Cook

One thing I got out of this trip was that all of the places we visited were not just “museums.” We weren’t just examining the now-lifeless ruins of places from the Bible. Almost everywhere we went, people were still actively worshipping! People are still inspired by thinking about / visiting / seeing those historical places. Those places still have the power to enliven our spiritual lives, and we are all still involved in the process of drawing meaning from those people and places. As my former pastor once said, we are all still a part of the Bible’s story, the story of God’s people – it is ongoing! And the stories of these sites continue as well.

I’m not sure what the FINAL lesson from that observation is… but I’m still thinking about it. A wise lady told me in the Holy Land, “You have to ask yourself: Why have I been called here to this place NOW, at this moment in my life?” It certainly was the chance of a lifetime!

Christopher Shealy

A closing note…

If any of our congregations would like to hear more about this trip or have a program about the Holy Land, I encourage you to contact me or one of the candidates who went. Any of us would be happy to share the story. I also encourage our congregations to consider taking up a Love offering and contributing to the fund which helps make this journey possible for our SC Synod Candidates. Every dollar you contribute makes a difference for our Candidates. Contact my office if you want to learn more about this fund. And I want to thank all those congregations who have already donated toward this fund. You are contributing toward the formation of Church Leaders in a unique and deeply meaningful way. Thank you.


This is Christ’s Church. There is a place for you here.

We are the church that shares a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person–questions, complexities and all. Join us as we do God’s work in Christ’s name for the life of the world.

Contact Information

ELCA South Carolina Synod
1003 Richland Street
Columbia, SC 29201
Telephone 803-765-0590
Fax 803-252-5558

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