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How to experience the Holy Land

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 12 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Christian pilgrims pray ahead of the Washing of the Feet ceremony inside the Chapel of St John and Baptistery, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried, in Jerusalem's Old City, April 2011. Christians from around the world are in the Holy Land marking the solemn period of Easter.

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As a boy, S. Michael Wilcox loved the Old Testament story of Elijah being fed by the ravens. “It was a wonderful thing that the ravens were bringing him food,” Wilcox said, recalling his boyhood fascination of the story found in I Kings 17.

On his first trip to Israel, Wilcox was sitting in Galilee when he noticed a black and grey bird walking on the grass. He inquired about the bird, and his guide replied that it was a raven.

“A wave of emotion swept over me and I started to weep as I looked at this raven,” said Wilcox, a retired instructor for LDS Church Educational System. “The reality of the story I loved as a boy hit somehow. It was a powerful moment, not just for the story, but because of the reality of what I was seeing. That is illustrative of what happens so often.”

Many who travel to Old and New Testaments sites hope to have similar experiences. In 2010, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism estimated that a record 2.38 million Christians visited the Holy Land, many of which were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Wilcox is one of many who host or guide LDS tour groups in Israel, Jordan and Egypt — places Wilcox likes to call “The Holy Lands.”

Despite Middle Eastern conflict and political unrest, Wilcox and others strive to help tourists come away with a greater appreciation for the traditions, cultures, people and religions when walking where Jesus walked. It is also a land where the scriptures can come to life.

“That is a message I want people to get as they come away from the Holy Lands,” Wilcox said. “That these things are relevant. What he (the Lord) did for them, in these places, he will do for you.”

‘Disposition to be pleased’

When Wilcox takes groups to the Holy Lands, he likes to share an expression by the poet William Wordsworth.

“I want people to come with a ‘disposition to be pleased,’” Wilcox said. “The Holy Lands tour, in particular, opens us up for a great opportunity because you have so many world religions uniting there. So I want them to meet Jewish people … Palestinian people … and appreciate the gifts these people and this little land have given to the world.”

Wilcox’s goal when taking people anywhere in the world is to help them gain an appreciation, love, respect, reverence and openness for different cultures, traditions, cultures and approaches to life. He has made a habit of always seeking out citizens of each country he visits or a different religion and thanking them for their positive contributions to the world.

“I don’t want them to come away judgmental or thinking anything negative about any people or religion,” he said. “I hope they allow what they experience to enrich their lives.”

Daniel Rona and his son Steven are the only two Latter-day Saint licensed guides in Israel. Daniel has been guiding tours there for 38 years. His goal is to help visitors reconnect with their roots.

“Instead of painting the past with perceptions of the present, it’s a holistic opportunity,” Rona said. “It’s more than spiritual, mental and physical. I want to help them return to the way it was, remind them of what they already know.”

Too many are quick to judge the Islamic faith and the Palestinian people, Wilcox said. Generally, they are hospitable, warm, generous and gracious.

“Islam has lifted the moral, ethical and religious sensibilities of billions of people for almost 1,500 years,” Wilcox said. “They have their problems, but so does Christianity. Christianity has had some massive problems. It’s very hard for any one religion to point to another religion and say look at what you’ve done to mankind. Even Mormons have the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

“The Koran is full of beautiful moments. Islam is a wonderful religion and I want people to see how positive it is.”

Rona said many don’t make the trip because they don’t think Israel is safe. “It’s safer than Salt Lake City,” Rona said. “Outside of Israel, it’s mayhem.”

Citing a prophecy in Isaiah 19:23-25, Wilcox believes deeply that there will one day be peace in the Middle East.

“That prophecy seems to say to us that the day is going to come when Egypt, Israel and Assyria (modern-day Iraq) will all be united in one … I’m not convinced I have to wait until the millennium,” Wilcox said. “It will come. There are good people there. We want to facilitate and pray for it.”

Enhancing the scriptures

Bruce H. Porter is another LDS tour host who has traveled extensively to Israel. He has a background in Ancient Near East history and taught religion classes for BYU Continuing Education. He said the Holy Land is rich with opportunities to enhance gospel knowledge.

“Every stone, every hill, every rock has some type of history to it, and we want people to feel,” Porter said. “We want the scriptures to come alive as they see and feel these places, as visions of these stories come to mind in a way that has never been done before.”

Some of his favorite places to visit include Capernaum, the town Christ called home, and the Sea of Galilee, where Christ calmed the waves as well as walked on water.

“If you are a student of the scriptures, by being there you are never going to be able to read the scriptures the same way again,” Porter said.

Walking in the footsteps of Christ and the prophets is a wonderful thing, Wilcox said.

“Galilee always leaves me with a sense of peace in my heart, more so than any other place in all of the Holy Lands. There is something about the spirit of Jesus in Galilee that calms me down, and fills me full of hope and love,” Wilcox said. “To teach the stories in the settings that those stories were given, allows the Holy Ghost to bring them into deeper areas of heart.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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