Reflections from a Holy Land Visit

Scott Stilwell (far right) at the Dead Sea with fellow mission volunteers.

Scott Stilwell (far right) at the Dead Sea with fellow mission volunteers.
Scott Stilwell (far right) at the Dead Sea with fellow mission volunteers.

While many Christian groups enjoy tourist pilgrimages to the Holy Land, others who visit the area are dedicated to ministering while there.  A West Virginia-based chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes sponsored such a trip in June and two southwest Roanoke county residents accompanied the group.

Scott Stilwell, a recent Hidden Valley High School graduate, joined the mission team on the journey to Bethlehem.  The trip was a graduation gift from his grandfather, Rev John Rinehart, who also went with the group.  The two spent 12 days in the Holy Land and saw a side of Israel that most Christian pilgrims see only from a distance.

The majority of their time was spent in Bethlehem, where they held daily basketball and soccer clinics for the Palestinian children at the Catholic Action Center.  Many of the athletes who helped with the clinics had played for various college teams, and most evenings the makeshift FCA basketball team competed in exhibition games against the Palestinian National Team.

The coordinator of the group, Mike White, began taking mission teams to Israel in 1998, spending the first two years in Gaza – where he was once invited to visit the PLO headquarters, to meet Yasser Arafat.  Though the visit was unsettling for White because of security issues, he recalled Arafat being kind because of the help his group had given the people.

Since then, White has concentrated his efforts in the West Bank, where he has made friends and continues to build relationships.  Prior to his first trip he had a skewed perspective of the Palestinian people because of the violence and terrorism that is shown on American television, but he has since found the people to be warm and hospitable.  His mission groups return to the same places each year, staying at the Alexander Hotel and working with the coach of the Palestinian National Basketball Team.

FCA is an evangelical organization and White admits that his style of personal evangelism has changed over the years.

“I’ve learned that the most effective evangelism is relational.  People really do want to know how much you care before they want to know how much you know,” White said.

“We started doing Jesus-style ministry, going through the land, meeting people’s needs, helping the sick and feeding the hungry,” he added.

White partners with Holy Land Trust, an organization committed to principles of nonviolence, to strengthen the Palestinian community.  Their goal is to develop strategies that resist oppression and help build a coexistence of understanding, respect, equality and peace.   White has also directed medical missions in the area, bringing in teams of doctors to hold free clinics.  Each year the team also actively supports the Bethlehem Home for Girls.

The mission group spent the last two days of their journey in Israel visiting some of the popular tourist sites in Jerusalem and in the northern region of Galilee.  A highlight of the tour was traveling south through the desert to Masada and Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  Stilwell’s favorite memory was hiking at En Gedi, a significant Old Testament site.  He said the scorching desert heat intensified the steep, rocky climb, but the panoramic view of the Dead Sea was well worth the trek for the few who were up to the challenge.

“It was fun to see the sights – but I really liked spending time with the people,” reflected Stilwell.

The team had pre-camp prayer and Bible studies each day, and some were able to share their faith with the campers in spite of the language barrier.

“Most of those kids will never leave Bethlehem, and they have nothing,” said Stilwell.  “They were so excited on that last day, when we give them a basketball to keep.  I want to go back and make a difference in the lives of those kids.”

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By Susan Stilwell
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