By Cecelia Ellis
For The Republic
Twenty Jennings County residents recently made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to enrich their religious faith, but events unexpectedly put that faith to the test.
Fighting between Israelis and Palestinians clouded their journey and caused family members at home to worry.
However, the travelers said they were glad they went, and it was a rewarding experience.
“It was a leap of faith, but then that is what the trip was about,” said Dr. Patricia Vayo-Sollman, a veterinarian who made her first trip outside the United States.
“We were going to the place where our faith began, and I felt a calling to go ahead. But I also decided that if something happened then, that was God’s will and I would accept it,” Vayo-Sollman added.
Trip planned for year
Planning for the trip began last year when the Rev. Jonathan Meyer was the parish priest assigned to St. Anne, St. Joseph and St. Mary’s churches in Jennings County. Meyer had been to Jerusalem twice and wanted as many people as possible to visit the place where Jesus Christ lived and died.
Meyer contacted Indianapolis-based Tekton Ministries, which specializes in organizing faith-based tours, to make arrangements for him and 19 members of his churches to travel to Israel. The trip was scheduled for July 21 to 31; but even before the shooting started situations changed. Meyer was transferred to the All Saints Parish in the Batesville area.
“That was difficult, and we weren’t sure we would still be able to make the trip; but Father (Meyer) reminded us that the trip wasn’t about him, and we should move ahead with our plans,” said Chris Deyerling, secretary of the parish in Jennings County.
The Rev. Jerry Byrd replaced Meyer, easing the transition at the parishes.
However, fighting broke out between Israelis and Palestinians days before their scheduled trip. Stories about Hamas and Israeli fighters, missiles and rockets, and people dying filled media reports.
The group boarded its plane, but while en route the U.S. stopped all commercial air flights between the U.S. and Israel. The group’s plane was the next-to-last allowed to land at the airport in Tel Aviv.
“After we landed and were at our hotel, a reporter asked what I thought about being among the last U.S citizens allowed to land in Israel, and I said, ‘Thank God we made it in,’” Meyer said.
The group maintained communication with its travel agency, which had assured them it would be safe to go. However, most other travelers had canceled their tours for the entire month, leaving many of the tourist sites empty, Meyer said.
“That was unfortunate for Israel, because tourism is their third-largest industry, and there was hardly anyone else there. As soon as they found out we were Americans, they hugged us and told us how glad they were to see us,” Meyer said.
Upon arrival, group members said they felt protected.
“I never felt threatened the whole time we were there. Maybe that is because from the time we landed, we saw members of the Israel military everywhere we went,” Vayo-Sollman said. “But then, maybe it was also because everywhere we went was about praying, and we did do a lot of praying and that brings a feeling of peace.”
The trip was based around visiting the sights where Jesus Christ lived, including many churches in Jerusalem, Mount Calvary, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Sea of Galilee and the Via Dolorosa — the path Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion.
Since 1225, Franciscan friars have maintained custody of the sites sacred to Christianity in Israel proper and also in the West Bank and other sites in the Middle East. Today, through the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land, Franciscan friars still work to maintain a strong Christian presence, but only 150,000 permanent Christian residents remain in the region. Franciscan Foundation literature predicts that if the current rate of departure continues, within 60 years there will be no permanent Christian community left in the region.
“Our guide told us the Christian population in Bethlehem used to be about 25 percent of the total population, but now it is only 2 percent. That shows how soon we may lose access to some of the places we, as Christians, hold so sacred,” Vayo-Sollman said. “I’ll never forget what it was like to stand at the door of Christ’s tomb. We must continue to protect those places.”
Group member Mary Anne Marschino said the trip made a significant impact on her.
“If you go there, you won’t be same as you were when you left,” Marschino said.
All the walking and climbing was challenging, but everyone helped one another, she added.
The pilgrimage was a family trip for Scott and Chris Deyerling, their son Mitch and their daughter Taylor.
“It was a very exciting 10 days”, the mother said. “During the last 2000 years, the population has spread, and it all has become crowded except at the Sea of Galilee. You could stand there and think it looks the same as it did when Christ was there. It was wonderful. The worst thing about the whole trip was that we knew the people back home were worried about us.”
Travel between the U.S. and Israel eventually resumed, and the Jennings County travelers returned on schedule July 31.
“I am so glad I had the chance to go. The trip really changed some of my perspectives,” said 18-year-old Mitch Deyerling, a student at Indiana University in Bloomington.
“I saw that people do things differently than we do things in the U.S. Like, they have large outdoor markets, kind of like outside malls, nothing like anything we have in Jennings County,” he added. “I also crossed out the stereotype that all Middle Easterners were mean and terrorists. Everywhere we went, almost everyone was a Middle Easterner, and we met some of the nicest people you will ever meet anywhere.”