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Outbreak of war changes plans for pair in Holy Land

Shelley McVea and Jeanette Lewis on an airplane.
The Rev. Shelley McVea and the Rev. Jeanette Lewis on the plane heading to the Holy Land, just a few days before it would erupt in war.
By 
 on January 2, 2024

After a year of excited planning, we arrived in Tel Aviv early in the of morning on Oct. 4 and journeyed to St. George’s College in Jerusalem for its tour of the Holy Land.

We spent a couple of days walking around the city of Jerusalem waiting for the course to start with evening Eucharist on Oct. 5. The atmosphere in Jerusalem was calm and alive, and the weather was hot. It was shaping up to be a great 10 days walking in the “Footsteps of Jesus.”

On Friday we journeyed to the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized. Our image of a pristine flow of water turned into a muddy trickle of what it must have been. The reason for this is that parched Israel and Jordan siphon off 98 per cent of the water for their use. That did not discourage us, however, from getting our feet wet and renewing our baptismal vows. After a wonderful lunch, we headed to the wilderness for a time of quiet reflection.

What we thought would be a lovely biblical experience turned out to be probably a more accurate picture of what the footsteps of Jesus were really like – the Prince of Peace walking amidst a land of strife. We were definitely inspired and touched emotionally by being present where our faith had its beginnings.

On Saturday morning, while preparing to head to Bethlehem, the Very Rev. Richard Sewell, the dean of the college, called us in, saying, “I need you to meet me in the library right now!” As we hustled into the library, we wondered why he sounded so stern. Canon Sewell advised us that Hamas had attacked Israel, and we were told to stay in this sheltered area, away from any windows, until we got further news.

That afternoon was spent getting know our fellow pilgrims very well as we pondered what our course might turn out to be. Would there be a trip to Bethlehem? No. Would our trip to Galilee the next day also be in jeopardy? It was too early to tell. Our course became a day-to-day event, as the dean and our instructor worked diligently and tirelessly in taking us only to places that would be safe.

With this assurance of our safety, we were allowed to journey as a group to the old city on Sunday. There were numerous sirens sounding and forcing us to take shelter in protected areas over the next couple of days. After returning from a delayed Galilee trip, we were to start planning to leave early. Of course, by this time all flights had been cancelled except for some El Al flights.

On Oct. 13 we were again summoned by the dean to go immediately to the library. The Archbishop of Jerusalem had been advised that the borders might soon be closed. We were given a decision: did we want to leave in the next half hour, or did we want to leave the next morning? Jeanette chose to leave right away. Shelley chose to leave the next morning.

While making the bus trip to the northern border, Jeanette passed through many checkpoints. This involved numerous Israeli soldiers boarding the bus with large rifles, checking IDs several times. Finally the bus made it to the Jordanian border, where, after paying border fees and walking and riding across the border region, Jeanette made it safely into Jordan. After being fed and sheltered at a school for the deaf run by the Anglican Church, Jeanette headed to the Amman airport for a flight home.

Meanwhile Shelley, still in Jerusalem, got the disappointing news at dinner that night that the borders had closed and her way out the next morning was cancelled. The search for a flight home began in earnest. Plans were made and adjusted again and again amidst the stress of a country now at war. This did allow her three extra days in Jerusalem, for which she is grateful. Finally, after an uneventful drive to the Tel Aviv airport, Shelley headed for home.

We are so thankful to the people of St. George’s College, who sheltered us physically and emotionally during this time. We continue to pray for the work of the college. We are also grateful for all your prayers, which were felt and appreciated by us both.

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