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Holy Land travelers safe, concerned for war victims (UM News)

October 11, 2023

Most everyone was blindsided by the surprise Hamas attack on Israel, including hundreds of travelers looking forward to a tour of the Holy Land with commentary from a prominent United Methodist pastor.

“I’m sitting in the theater on the cruise ship, and I have 480 people sitting there really excited about going to walk in the footsteps of Jesus,” recalled the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Resurrection, a large United Methodist church based in Leawood, Kansas, with six campuses.

Hamilton spoke with UM News on Oct. 10 from the cruise ship, which was in the Mediterranean Sea near the Greek island of Rhodes.

“I’m getting ready to lecture them and show them pictures and slides and tell them how to spiritually prepare themselves to have a pilgrimage,” he said. “It’s about 50 churches; I think 30 pastors are on here, but it’s mostly lay people.

The surprise attack the morning of Oct. 7 has led to the deaths of at least 1,900 on both sides, reported The Associated Press. The militant group Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza have reportedly taken 150 Israeli soldiers and civilians hostage to use as human shields meant to lessen the Israeli response, the AP reported.

Israeli warplanes responded by bombing Gaza Strip neighborhoods, killing trapped Palestinians and destroying buildings. The victims include Palestinians not affiliated with the militant groups.

“As a people who pray for and work toward peace, we in the United Methodist family are appalled and dismayed by the animosities and inhumane actions undertaken by Hamas,” said Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, president of the Council of Bishops, in a statement from the council. “The declaration of war on the part of Israel as a result is also deeply saddening.

“We condemn the Hamas militants who have killed and captured civilians, women and children in Israel,” he continued. “We equally decry the deaths of innocent civilians, women and children caught in the crossfire of the Israeli retaliation in the Gaza Strip.”

In addition to his concern for those caught in the hostilities, Hamilton was determined to deliver a rewarding experience for the Holy Land tourists despite the change of plans. A small group on the boat went to the captain and asked for the trip to be canceled and have them dropped off in Athens. That request was denied.

“This trip that they’ve been planning for years, it’s a kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Hamilton said. “How do I help them?”

He hastily managed to rework his lessons based on current events and where the ship was able to travel, and forged on.

“I will say how proud I am of these people,” he said. “The folks who are here, some of them are older adults who saved up for years to be able to go to the Holy Land, to go to Egypt … and suddenly they weren’t going to be able to do those things.

“But their primary concern was for the people who were on the ground in Israel and Palestine,” he added. “We had a prayer service (Oct. 9) with a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi leading … and most of our people showed up for that.”

Hamilton planned to meet another group of travelers, this time 300 members of his own church, in a week or so for a tour based on the travels of the apostle Paul on the Aegean Sea. He plans to lead that group as scheduled.

Educational Opportunities Tours, a Christian travel ministry used by the Hamilton group and other United Methodists, reported Oct. 10 that all their tour groups were safely evacuated out of Israel and on the way home. Family members concerned about people traveling in the area may call 800.247.0017 with further questions.

Hamilton’s group did realize that an earlier timeline on their trip could have placed them in danger.

“I think everybody was thoughtful about that,” he said. “Had we gotten there a day earlier, would we have been there at the time the rockets were fired off? … So I think people felt grateful that they were not, but again their concern has always been for the other people.”