A minister of the Gospel, the Rev. Paul Johnson of Altoona often has read about towns such as Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, Joppa, where Jonah boarded a ship for Tarshish to flee from God's mission, and Jerusalem, where Jesus preached in the temple and was crucified.
Earlier this year, Johnson, pastor of Eighteenth Street Community Church, visited these cities and other significant Christian and Jewish sites after being chosen by the Zionist Organization of America, Pittsburgh District, to join its first ministers delegation to Israel.
Johnson was one of 10 minsters chosen for the trip and the only one from Altoona. Joining him were one Lutheran, two Apostolic and six Presbyterian ministers from Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Wheeling, W.Va.
Johnson supports Israeli troops in their efforts to protect the nation.
The ZOA, founded in 1897, educates Americans about Israel and its neighbors.
Stuart Pavilack, executive director of ZOA-Pittsburgh District, accompanied the pastors and said it also was his first trip to the Jewish nation.
Pavilack said underwriting helped to make the trip happen and hopes resources are available to provide future trips.
He said the ZOA wanted to provide a spiritual experience for the pastors and show them Israel on the ground level, places and people they might not see on the nightly news.
Pavilack said the group met with a member of the Knesset, the International Christian Embassy, a couple that immigrated from Ethiopia and the Palestinian Media Watch.
They also toured Hadassah Hospital and Yad Vashhem Holocaust Memorial Center in addition to sacred sites.
They got to see the borders, meet people and learn more about the conflict, he said.
"The hope is that the visit will promote a better understanding about Israel," Pavilack said.
One of the days highlighted places that were associated with Jesus' ministry, including the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, Golgotha and the tomb.
Johnson said, "It was amazing to be where Jesus walked."
He recalled one spiritual experience when the group celebrated Holy Communion in a chapel adjacent to the tomb.
"When we ate the bread and drank the cup, Jesus became real to us," he said. "The group bonded as one. There was an overwhelming spiritual presence."
"But the most solemn occasion was at the Western Wall," Johnson said.
The Western Wall is all that remains of the second Jewish Temple that was destroyed in 70 C.E. and is a sacred spot to the Jews.
"I have spoke about it, thought about it, but I never dreamed I would ever be there. It communicated what it meant to serve my Lord, my God, my Savior, Jesus Christ. I wept and I prayed; I wept and I prayed. I don't know how long. I tried to remember anyone who ever blessed me in any way that I should be able to be standing in Israel, on Temple grounds, against this wall," he said.
The group also got to experience an inspiring sight at the wall when they witnessed members of the Israeli military approach the wall with singing. When they got close to the wall, they danced.
Johnson said they had so much joy that he wanted to join them.
Pavilack estimated that about 3,000 people were at the Western Wall the day they visited. He said one of the ministers commented that his church is only half full on Sunday mornings and he was deeply moved by watching so many people come to pray.
The group became acquainted with some of Israel's defense forces in the Golan Heights.
Johnson, who served in Vietnam, said he had much in common with the soldiers and was able to encourage a young married soldier who was unsure about starting a family because of the fighting.
Johnson said he told him they should have children, an investment in the country's future.
Looking up at the clouds, Johnson asked him "Who do you see beyond the clouds?"
The soldier smiled, and Johnson gave him one of his Navy pins.
I told him, "We preach the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He's my God, too."
For Johnson, the most enlightening part of the trip was learning how vulnerable the country is.
"I didn't realize how thin Israel's borders are," he said.
The group visited Siderot where between 8,000 and 9,000 rockets have been fired on Israel since the year 2000, Pavilick said.
Johnson said the group learned that the people only have 15 seconds to take cover when the alarm sounds and that playground facilities, such as playhouse and a tunnel painted to look like a centipede, double as shelters.
Near the border with Lebanon, an Israeli shared about a time when no fence divided the two countries and the Israelis and Lebanese would converse freely.
"His heart is heavy because they no longer can do those things," Johnson said.
Pavilack said their guide warned the group not to wave to the Lebanese working in the fields because Hezbollah fighters could kill interpret a Lebanese citizen waving back as collaboration with the enemy.
For Johnson, the trip also was therapeutic in a way he did not expect.
The group visited at the home of an Ethiopian Jewish couple where the woman is caring for her ailing mother.
Johnson, who had lost his mother on New Year's Day, learned the woman's mother had trouble walking and memory problems, situations he had experienced with his mother. He shared his story.
"There was a communal bond between two children who loved our parents," he said.
"She couldn't speak English but wanted to pray a blessing over me on behalf of my mother. My tears turned to joy. It was too much," he said.
Johnson said his mom had passed away the month before when he got the call about taking the trip. He said the call took him by surprise and his first reaction was that he could not afford it. Although most of the funds for Johnson's trip was paid for by the ZOA, the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation contributed to his expenses as well as Jewish and pastor friends.
Bill Wallen, executive director of the federation, said the ZOA approached the Altoona Jewish community about sending a pastor from the area on the trip. He, Hazzan Michael Horwitz, spiritual leader of Agudath Achim Synagogue, and Joel Hollander of the Israel Bonds Committee, chose Johnson.
"It was a wonderful opportunity for him," said Wallen, who noted Johnson has been able to share his experiences since returning to Altoona.
Johnson will speak about his trip during the Altoona Israel Bonds Dinner to the held Oct. 10 at The Casino at Lakemont Park, and he is willing to talk to other groups.
Johnson will be honored at the dinner where the campaign recognizes people who have made positive contributions to the community. Wallen said people may buy bonds in Johnson's honor or on behalf of Eighteenth Street Community Church. The investments are used to develop Israel's infrastructure.
"They have nothing to do with defense," Wallen said.
Johnson summed up his trip by telling about a touching moment he observed in Jaffa (Joppa).
"I saw little children talking as if they didn't have a care in the world, oblivious it seemed to thoughts of war, to racial divide, to religious bigotry," he said. "They had the look of peace so many want."