Walking pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Roads and pathways snake down and around the hills in Israel, which might give an idea to prospective pilgrims what walking the terrain between Nazareth and Jerusalem will be like. This photograph was taken from a tour bus in 2013. (Marty Denzer/Key file photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY Have you made a bucket list yet? Here’s a trip that could be life changing.

Father Ernie Davis, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in Lee’s Summit, is organizing a pilgrimage to Israel in 2020. He and his wife Valerie have gone on a number of pilgrimages to the Holy Land, mostly traveling through by tour bus. This trip will be different; pilgrims will travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem as Jesus traveled – on foot, and they will stay with people who live and work in the Holy Land.

Think about it: How does a night in the desert with the Bedouin sound? What about walking down the Mount of Beatitudes to the Sea of Galilee? Walking up to Jerusalem from Jericho, like Jesus with Bar-Timaeus and the disciples? Eating and talking with the people of Israel?

Fr. Davis said, “This pilgrimage is being created on ancient foundations, much like the route to Santiago de Compostela – the Way of St. James in Spain. One hundred years ago, the ancient route was almost forgotten and had to be renewed. As you know, the route (the Camino) to Santiago de Compostela nowadays is walked by thousands.

“The walking routes in the Holy Land are also being renewed. Almost no one considers that it’s even possible to go there on pilgrimage any other way than by tour bus. Walking this route will start small, with small, occasional groups of pilgrims. The 2020 pilgrimage will be limited to between 12 and 20 people.

“As it builds,” he continued, “it will bring hope, encouragement and economic development to the small Christian parishes who will provide hospitality for the pilgrims among their parishioners.”

For Jim and Laurie Jo Holmes, this will be their first trip to Israel. “Jim and I had not been planning any trips to the Holy Land,” Laurie Jo recalled. Then one day several months ago, Laurie Jo, who works at the Catholic Center, ran into Fr. Davis at the elevator. She hadn’t seen him in some time, so she reintroduced herself and “he immediately extended an enthusiastic invitation to consider sharing about as well as participating in a tour to Israel to follow the Apostle Luke’s footsteps. Travelling to Jerusalem had always been a ‘vague’ item on my bucket list; however, I never thought it would be possible.”

She hopes to gain a better understanding of the Israeli people and what the culture is like rather than depend on the distorted/biased picture of what today’s media paints. “Because of the news, I thought the Holy Land had constant fighting, terrorism, and military tensions; therefore, it was unsafe for visitors. Fr. Davis’ invitation helped open my mind to other possibilities. It took me about three seconds to decide I wanted to go and invite others to consider joining us on this pilgrimage.”

At first, she and Jim were thrilled about walking the same trails as Jesus and his disciples climbing Mount Tabor where Peter, John, and James witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration, seeing the place where he healed the 10 lepers, visiting Jacob’s well and following the spring descending the hill to Jericho. They also looked forward to a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. As she learned more about the trip, Laurie Jo realized the group would be “spending quite a bit of time with the real people of the Holy Land (mostly Catholic and Orthodox Christians), the folks we trust to be the caretakers of the Holy Land. We are invited to eat dinner with them and stay overnight in their homes. How exciting!”

Garry Mesecher, who works in administration at St. Margaret’s Parish, is also looking forward to the pilgrimage, especially as his daughter, Katie Tholen, is accompanying him. Mesecher had traveled to Israel with Fr. Davis in Jan. 2018 and, while in the West Bank, noticed the trail from Nazareth to Jerusalem. He wanted to explore it and asked Fr. Davis to “set up a trip to do the trail.” Among other reasons for going, he wants to see if he can do it!

Fr. Davis explained, “The trail or path you can see from the Mount of the Beatitudes above the Sea of Galilee leads downward through the fields where Jesus may have spoken the Sermon on the Mount. We will take that path, pass the ‘Eremos Cave,’ the ‘deserted place’ where Jesus used to go pray, and down to the shore of the lake, the Sea of Galilee. Another path leads up from Jericho to Jerusalem, up the Wadi Qelt alongside the old aqueduct and past the Orthodox Monastery. I walked down that path on my first trip 30 years ago. We will walk up it, just as Jesus did.” The Wadi Qelt was the main road from Jerusalem to Jericho. During Jewish festivals, at least three times yearly, thousands of Jews walked on the Wadi Qelt to the Temple in Jerusalem, as did everyday travelers, Roman armies and traders. The twisting pathway made it a primary target for robbers and was probably the setting for the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When asked, “As you meet the people living between Nazareth and Jerusalem (many of them Muslim and/or Palestinian), what do you hope to share with them, to teach and for them to teach you?” Mesecher answered, “Well, that can be touchy for I know how they are being treated by the Israelis. Things the media does not communicate. Or we Americans ignore.”

Fr. Davis noted that there is an ecumenical component of the pilgrimage. “We’ll visit a developing daycare center for the Developmentally Disabled sponsored by the Cornerstone Church in Blue Springs, in Zabadeh, one of the towns we will visit.”

Mesecher said, “I have for years been creating and supporting information systems for Kansas (CDDO).” His daughter Katie Tholen is a member of the Cornerstone Church, thus Mesecher feels connected to the daycare center being established on several accounts.

‘Excited,’ ‘passion’ and ‘experience’ are words Katie Tholen used to describe her thoughts about the forthcoming pilgrimage. “First of all, this will be an experience I get to have with my father, and I think that says a lot.

“I have been all over the world doing Mission trips; 15 in my lifetime. It’s a passion of mine.”

Her first mission trip was to Nazareth Farm in West Virginia her senior year in high school. “With this trip, I’ll be able to experience the walk with Jesus!!!

“My life is hectic with two boys, full time job, volunteering with several organizations and heavily involved in my church on the missions board; this experience, I feel, will bring me back to what is really important in life and that is our walk with Jesus in our everyday life. “

She is eager to learn more about Israel and her people. “I want to be a part of the culture.

“When I go to another country, that’s the first thing that excites me, how others live.” She said seeing how others live is important as it give people a more sympatric [related populations existing in the same geographic area and frequently encountering each other] view of their own society.

“We are more patient with others and really don’t take things for granted,” she added.

Katie said Cornerstone, her non-denominational church, gives 25% of tithes to missions, local and globally.

She explained, “We support Yousef Khalil, the director of Young Life in Israel, who has begun the process of creating an adult daycare for those with a developmental disability in Zababdeh.

“There is a high population of disabilities in this community, which is mostly Christian really rare in a mostly Muslim area.

“Young Life each year has a weekly summer camp for kids and young adults; people from all faiths come to partake in the event.

“Young Life saw a great need for support to these families and Yousef felt led to start the daycare, which will allow families who are usually the caretakers to actually be able to work or just get out once in a while.

“Families with kids and young adults are usually shunned for having children with disabilities so they are home-bound most of their life. This facility will allow families something they haven’t had before. When I saw the itinerary for the pilgrimage and saw that one of our stays was in Zababdeh, I got so excited.

“It will give me the ability to see what we are supporting first-hand.”
The overarching aspect of the pilgrimage is spiritual. Jim and Laurie Jo “look forward to attending Mass with our group at beautiful chapels, churches, cathedrals, and basilicas in different towns and villages, experiencing biblical history with our own eyes and seeing God’s word come alive in the Holy Land. She added, “Following the footsteps of Jesus and the disciples especially Luke can’t help but increase my knowledge of the Bible. Right now, I have a blind faith; the experiences on this trip will sharpen my mind and open my heart even more to Jesus.”

When Valerie Davis walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela with Fr. Davis, it was her first walking pilgrimage. She said walking the Camino was “a prayer-enabler, a prayer-shaping experience, and one of frequent changes in prayer! I am excited about the walking pilgrimage in Israel because of that spiritual aspect.”

Davis is sympathetic to the needs of the minority, the Palestinian Christians, both Catholic and Greek Orthodox, and is aware of the challenges of the political, cultural and doctrinal discrimination they experience. “They need the support of the Church,” she said. “We need to open up to a new system and supporting, if we can, the living saints in the region. I would like to see reconciliation instead of division.”

She said she is looking forward to prayer times and building relationships similar to Jesus’ relationships.

Laurie Jo said she looks forward to inspiring fellowship along the journey. “This pilgrimage is for those who want to walk the walk, not just go on a sightseeing bus tour. The hikes on days 4 – 11, ranging from 9.3 – 17.4 miles (15 to 28 km), present me with a great challenge – something I’m currently training for. Thinking about those hikes helps me appreciate the disciples’ custom of washing one’s feet when visiting homes. This experience will give me a better appreciation for slowing down and enjoying the journey. We will have the opportunity to teach and learn from each other along the way. Even now I can imagine Jesus teaching the apostles while journeying from town to town. “

And, she looks forward to being spiritually refreshed by bringing more life-meaning to the Gospels. It will deepen my understanding of what it’s like to be a Catholic Christian in another part of the world.

The pilgrimage is being coordinated through Patriarchate Travel. Fr. Davis said, “We’ve got a good start with five registered, not including Valerie and me. It’s quite a unique opportunity to spend time closely with the Christians in the Holy Land who live in the holy places. I believe it will be as life changing for those who go with us as for those who visit sister parishes in Central America. We may go to be a blessing, but we ourselves will be blessed by those we visit. It is a chance to break down stereotypes, and as the Catholic bishops in Jerusalem tell us, a chance to meet the ‘living stones’ of the living church, not just the ancient ruins in the Holy Places. We may even be pioneers on a new “Camino,” with our goal being Jerusalem with Joseph, Mary and Jesus.”

Fr. Davis said this pilgrimage could interest those who:

  • Want to slow down and get off the bus.
  • Aren’t afraid to walk like Jesus and the disciples, like Mary and Joseph.
  • Want to meet the Christians in the Holy Land.
  • Are eager for nature: sky, forests, groves, desert, springs and streams.
  • Have been on the Camino.
  • Have been on a regular bus tour of the Holy Land or hate bus tours.

Pilgrims need not be Catholic, however most Christians encountered will be Catholic or Orthodox, as are most Christians in the Holy Land. Fr. Ernie said, “There are no “free” tickets included in the price to keep the cost down for everyone and to make up for the added cost of taking a relatively small group. The price is from New York, so all joining the trip will have to add the cost of getting there.”

No fundraising is planned, but Fr. Davis said If anyone was moved to do something extremely generous, they could offer to send a Little Brother or Sister of the Lamb on the pilgrimage.

For more information on the 2020 walking pilgrimage, contact Fr. Ernie Davis, fr.ernie.davis@stmos.org.


  1. January 30, 2020 at 10:59 am #

    I just read your article. I’m very interested. What is the cost? I have just completed the 500 mile trek of the camino de Santiago….. please let me know. God bless you and what your doing

  2. February 3, 2020 at 3:38 am #

    I am very interested in finding out more about the planned walking pilgrimage
    Best wishes

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October 31, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph