Houses of worship making travel plans

Rev. Jim Divine, leads the service at the Lake Deaton campus of New Covenant United Methodist Church.

Villagers looking to take a faith-based vacation can look no further than their area houses of worship. A number of churches and synagogues are sponsoring trips and cruises around the world for vacations that mix traditional tourism with religion and faith. According to a 2015 article by Travel Market Report, an estimated 50,000 churches across the United States have a travel program. Those programs can range from mission trips and service outings to conferences and more. In The Villages, there are a number of houses of worship looking to help congregants and others find that niche. Faith-based travel is a growing market, not just in the United States but around the world. According to the World Tourism Organization, up to 330 million people visit key religious sites around the globe every year. Additionally, religious tourism adds up to $100 billion to the world economy per year.

So what is faith-based travel? According to the Faith Travel Association, a community of tour operators, travel agents and others serving faith-based markets, it includes pilgrimages, missions, conferences, leisure outings and more. And a few local houses of worship are offering a little something for everyone.

Village View Community Church in Summerfield  is organizing its first “Footsteps of Paul” tour, which will take place from Oct. 29 to Nov. 11 .

“We previously did three trips to Israel, but this year we wanted to do something different,” said Debbie Harrison , a Village of Dunedin resident helping organize the trip. “Israel is part of this year’s trip, as several parishioners wanted to visit, but there will be much more as we look at the life of St. Paul. ”

The trip begins in Rome before passengers get on board Royal Caribbean’s “Jewel of the Seas” cruise ship to begin their journey, with initial stops in Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.

“Parishioners can be baptized in the River Jordan,” said Harrison. “They can also do a boat tour on the Sea of Galilee.”

The trip will follow some of St. Paul’s missionary journey, with stops in Turkey, Cyprus and Greece. Visitors also will get the chance to tour the ruins of ancient Greece and, before departing, take a look at the volcanic ruins of Pompeii, Italy.

“There is also an opportunity to come early for a three-day tour of Rome,” said Harrison. “That tour will include stops at the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum.”

Bible studies and daily devotionals also are planned for the cruise.

“We are looking forward to it,” said Harrison. “We want people to have a good time while learning about St. Paul and how he spread the Gospel.”

Additional information on the Footsteps of Paul can be found at Village View Community Church’s information desk on the weekends.

Village View Community is working with Noseworthy Travel Services to make the Footsteps of Paul tour a reality. Noseworthy, based in Lakeland, is one of a number of travel agencies specializing in religious and faith-based tours of the Holy Land and the rest of the world.

“For 50 years, Noseworthy Travel Services has been providing quality Christian travel experiences to Israel and other Biblical destinations,” said Robert Vander Maten, president of Noseworthy. “We have been privileged to assist many pastors and ministry leaders in leading the tens of thousands of people on these life-changing journeys.”

On its website, Noseworthy offers a host of tour options, including “Bible Land Cruises” on the Mediterranean and a chance to witness next year’s Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, which takes place once every 10 years.

“I began working with NTS in 1987 after travelling with the company for the first time the year before,” said Vander Maten. “I have not forgotten my first trip and the impact it had on my life and my faith. It was transforming.”

Another Lakeland-based company that’s a major name in religious travel is Educational Opportunities. The company says more than 400,000 Christians have traveled on EO faith-based tours since its founding in 1974. EO is partnering with New Covenant United Methodist Church for a Holy Land tour next year.

The “Best of the Holy Land 2020 Tour” takes place from March 16 through 25. New Covenant Senior Pastor Rev. Harold Hendren describes himself as a Holy Land tour veteran.

“We’ve been doing this for close to a decade,” he said. “I see the benefits of helping people to connect the dots with what they read in the Bible to experiencing it.”

Parishioners will get the chance to visit the sites of some of Jesus’s miracles and ministries, as well as tour Bethlehem and the Old City of Jerusalem.

“I would describe this as an opportunity to retrace the steps of Jesus,” said Hendren. “It’s a life-changing experience to retrace Jesus’ life and ministry.”

The group also will have the chance to visit the Yardenit Baptismal Site in the Galilee region of northern Israel to be baptized in the River Jordan. Additionally, visitors can extend their trip another five days by visiting Petra and the Dead Sea.

“The last time I did this, we had 75 people take the tour with us,” said Hendren. “We already have about 40 signed up for next year’s trip. It is truly a life-changing experience for anyone who embarks on it.” 

To register for Best of the Holy Land 2020, go to eo.travel.

Temple Shalom of Central Florida also is paying a visit to the Holy Land, holding what it calls an “Adventure in Israel” from March 15 through 25. Rabbi Cantor Zev Sonnenstein, who is leading the journey, said it was inspired by a temple member.

“The way it came about was that someone said they would love to take a trip to Israel before they died,” he said. “So I said, somewhat tongue in cheek, how’s March? That person said OK.”

Sonnenstein said those going on the trip will get the full experience of Israel and the Holy Land.

“We will tour Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa, experience home hospitality at a Druze village, take a Jeep tour of the Golan Heights and explore Jerusalem from past to present.”

The tour also will include lunch and an “unsinkable swim” in the waters of the Dead Sea, as well as the option for congregants to extend their visit an extra day by going to Eilat and Petra.

“When you are with your congregation and your rabbi, you see a different side of people,” said Sonnenstein. “Because of this, we will see Israel through different eyes. We will have a tour guide, but there will be parts of the tour that steps away from the traditional visit.”

Temple Shalom is still accepting reservations, and is putting together a waiting list. Sonnenstein says he may put together a second trip if it proves quite popular.

“I took my first trip to Israel with my rabbi when I was 16,” he said. “I still remember it. It’s powerful to see the Holy Land through Biblical eyes; the history and the Torah come alive when you are in Israel.”

For more information on Adventure in Israel, go to secure.ayelet.com/Sonnenstein2020.aspx.

James Dinan is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5302, or james.dinan@thevillagesmedia.com.