At Faith Journeys, we believe in responsible travel experiences that prioritize the safety and well-being of both our pilgrims and the communities we visit. While the Holy Land has long been a destination for spiritual exploration, the recent conflict necessitated a reevaluation of our travel plans. Following the first few days of unrest, we opted to postpone our upcoming journeys, as ensuring a positive and enriching experience for everyone involved remains our highest priority. We look forward to revisiting the possibility of pilgrimages later in the year, cautiously monitoring the situation and staying in close contact with our local partners.
We wanted to share this blog post that was shared with us from Canon Johnnie Ross, who was on a tour with us as the conflict escalated, to help give perspective on our ever-changing world and navigating travel and safety in such an unprecedented time.
To the Churches, Clergy, and People of the Diocese of Rochester; Grace to you and peace.
Please know that I write to you on behalf of a very grateful group of travelers who are now safely home, thanks in part to you and your prayers. First, allow me to express my profound sorrow for the concern caused by our presence in the Middle East during these difficult times, that said, please know that we all felt safe and never in any direct danger.
During our travels, we were accompanied by an Egyptian police officer the entire time we were in and around Cairo. There were a couple of times we had both the officer on board and a police escort in front of the bus. The same security was provided for us as we arrived at the Cairo Airport on our way to Aswan. Once we boarded the ship for the Nile cruise, there was no security that we were aware of, but once in port, their presence was obvious. I did my best through FB posts and contact with Bishop Lane to let people know things were progressing as normal. Bishop Lane remained in contact through email, and I offered him updates as I could. His words from home brought not only comfort and encouragement to me but a sense of peace with the assurance that he and you were praying for us and our safety.
Once the conflict began, getting an immediate flight out was impossible, with the only available one a wait of some 7 days. So, we decided to make the best of it, to redirect our tour from the Holy Land to the land where the holy family took refuse when their lives were in danger in Israel. And while there we made an intentional visit to Abu Sarga, the oldest Christian church in Egypt, dating to the 5th century A.D. The church is said to be constructed upon the very crypt that housed The Holy Family during their three-week sojourn as refugees in Egypt.
We continued our daily prayers as we traveled, openly praying for the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, for Israeli and Russian leadership, the leadership of the United States, and Egypt, and all those working for peace. We prayed for those taken hostage and for the safety of the workers and patients in the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital. We gathered to celebrate the Eucharist twice, offering both to the glory of God and the people of the region, while at the same time giving thanks to the Bishop of Rochester, our clergy, and the people for their prayers and concerns for us.
We renewed our baptismal covenant while being asperged by the life-giving waters from the Nile at the place where the child Moses was pulled from the waters and taken into safety. That place is now called Aswan. It was there that I penned the simple prayer: “O God, who from the waters of the Nile delivered your servant Moses; deliver us to safety through these same waters and grant to us grateful hearts for the many prayers of your people and your great mercy. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
It was a prayer I said often in silence and God responded with a people gracious, welcoming, hospitable, caring, and extremely kind. We spent part of one day in the private home of a Nubian family, who had a 2–3-year-old daughter just as sweet as she was cute. There they welcomed us into their home, prepared drinks and snacks for the weary travelers, and invited us to sit in their dining room for rest.
The photo is the view from their dining room window and peace seemed real and present. Egyptian television was not the 24/7 war coverage that was CNN, which was the only US television channel we could get. Egyptian television gave the events in Gaza roughly the same amount of coverage as they gave the US House of Representatives not having a speaker.
Real leadership requires only three things really: the sharing of information, the assessment and prudent use of resources, and a non-anxious presence. There were plenty of days that I had no idea what we were doing next, but by morning we had a plan, shared the information, kept calm, and carried on. As a result, it was the best pilgrimage I had taken anywhere.
I thank God for the people of Faith Journeys, the travel agency I use for my trips abroad, for Ishmael our guide (a Christian), and our skilled bus driver, Muhamad, a devout Muslim. At night I would gather with Ishmael to work on the schedule for the following day, and the pilgrims responded beautifully!
Even in the midst of illness within the group, which included my wife, Julie, we carried on consulting with local pharmacists to provide for our needs, while relying on the advice and counsel of the doctor and pharmacist who “just so happened” to be traveling with us. Once we arrived back in Rochester, we received a text from an Egyptian pharmacist who had helped us, a remote follow-up to see that we were improving, asking if we were okay.
It was a situation into which I was proud and confident to have been called, often frightened, but proud, confident, prayerful, and careful. And by the grace of God, we remained safe. In the 28 years I have been a priest, I have heard more than once how my prayers sustained many during a crisis and how those prayers were felt over the distance that existed between us. Until now, I never knew how that felt. Thank you all for your prayers, they were felt, they made a difference, and we are home. Please know how eternally grateful I am to you, to our clergy, (my colleagues), and to our bishop, (my bishop), who continued to assure us of his concern, shared your prayers, and regularly checked in with us.
From one extremely grateful servant of the servants of God… Thank you all!
Canon Johnnie+…and the Fourteen Traveling Pilgrims