Experiencing the Holy Land


Steve Schunk

M.Div. ’18

This past January, a group from The General Theological Seminary embarked on a Pilgrimage and Study Tour to Israel and the Holy Lands, and it was a resounding success for the 12 of us who travelled together. The mix included three family members, one outside faculty member, three M.Div. Juniors, one GTS faculty member, one GTS staff member and three Trustees.

In particular, this nine-day tour brought the ancient texts to life. We explored the geography and the ancient ruins of the northwestern coastal port, Caesarea, on the Mediterranean Sea, including the Palace of Herod the Great; and also of Paneas in the foothills of the high mountains of Hermon. After that, we headed south to the rolling, rocky hills with short green grass and scrub around Nazareth and Jerusalem. Then, we traveled west toward Capernaum and the grassy banks along the Sea of Galilee. Moving south toward the arid desert and the plateau at Masada, we traveled to Qasr-Yehud, the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus on the Jordan River, and then down to the mineral water of the Dead Sea, where you can float unassisted. Our group spent several days in and around Nazareth, one day in Bethlehem, and the remaining days in Jerusalem.

Israel Trip _web 3

There were some particularly memorable aspects of our journey, compared to other available Holy Land tours. The first was having the high scholarship of both a New and Old Testament professor lead the tour, in addition to the Israel guide. Together, they brought up-to-date archeological knowledge and insight into the geography and the sites we explored—particularly in and around Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The second was our group size and mix, of students, faculty, advisors, trustees and some family, that formed a strong social and worship community. We gathered daily for either Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, celebrated Eucharist once, and attended Mass at the Anglican Church in Jerusalem. We ate most of our meals together and enjoyed evening conversations, recalling the day’s highlights. One of the most moving worship services was an Evening Prayer service which was held on a boat offshore on the Sea of Galilee. Experiencing the culture first-hand, especially the local foods and cuisine, helped us take root in these ancient lands.

Israel Trip _web 2

Having a new sense of this particular geography, the ancient lands breathed life into the historical biblical stories. In my mind's eye, I now have many new and improved images when I read passages about tending the sheep. I’ve seen the manger in Bethlehem and Qasr-Yehud where Jesus was baptized by John. Even my picture of the entire Passion Narrative is forever changed, because I’ve walked the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows), and touched the rock of Calvary. In one way or another, we all came back from this trip having had many new and deeply moving experiences.

In terms the Old Testament and our Jewish heritage, while in Jerusalem, we could see how the oldest section, the City of David, was first located next to the water, and was later expanded to a higher, fortified position up on top of the hill, where the Temple was built. We visited Qumran and saw the cave where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and then visited the fortress on Masada, where the Jewish zealots held off the Romans for over a year after the destruction of the Temple.

General Seminary is considering offering these pilgrimage tours annually, and making them available to the larger community—for the value of their academic, worship, and social components. We all had a great time, made new friends, and shared new experiences.

Next year, perhaps Oxford or Rome?

Connecting to South Africa and Desmond Tutu


Jo Ann Jones

M.Div. '17

In October, 2015, after the Matriculation ceremony, Professor Michael Battle approached me about my interest in traveling to South Africa. He had served as adjutant to Archbishop Tutu from 1993-1994 at Bishopscourt in Cape Town, experiencing his theology and participating with him in a wide array of activities, and I could see in his request a strong vision of revitalizing the Desmond Tutu Center at The General Theological Seminary.

In 1984, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was in residence at General Seminary as the Visiting Professor of Anglican Studies when he was notified that he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize. After his residence, he maintained his connection, visiting General several times. Based on its long relationship with Archbishop Tutu, the Seminary later established the Desmond Tutu Center in his honor. As the new Director of the Tutu Center, it has become quite apparent that Battle is seeking to help the center grow into a place focused on the life, theology, advocacy and legacy of Archbishop Tutu.

By January 2016, we had gathered for our pilgrimage to South Africa, the home of Desmond Tutu. The ten of us arrived almost two by two: two seniors, Ann Urinowski and Charles Bauer; two middlers, Sharon Sutton and myself; a Th.D. student, Meg Finnerud and her husband, Ken; a General Seminary Board member, Dianne Audrick Smith, and a faculty member/administrator from Virginia Theological Seminary, Kathryn Glover, in addition to Professor Battle and his friend and colleague the Rev. Edwin Arrison.

The Group with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Group with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Prof. Michael Battle with Archbishop Tutu.
Prof. Michael Battle with Archbishop Tutu.

Battle and Arrison had organized an intense immersion learning experience that appealed to the senses, the intellect, the heart and the soul. We had conversations with theologians, priests and the official biographer of Tutu, a psychologist who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who allowed us to explore the Archbishop’s spirituality, his role as catalyst and thorn in the side of many, and what his legacy might be.

The premiere experience was attending Eucharist at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town at which Archbishop Tutu presided. Afterwards, we had breakfast and conversation with him. We all impressed with Archbishop Tutu's response to Sharon Sutton asking him to identify his passion. His response, “Freedom.”

South Africa is a country of great contrasts, leading Bishop John Walker to write, “…my heart swells with pride in this place and breaks at the beauty of it.” In our time there, the group from General visited places of beauty such as Cape Town and two wineries; and difficult places including Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and where now-former political prisoners serve as tour guides, allowing them to tell their stories themselves. That anyone could overcome the trauma of that experience and be able to return to work there is a resurrection story in itself.


We also visited a township of shanty houses, served by very public latrines. While there, we visited a minister in the United Church of Christ, whose small church sits on a parcel of land for which he is trying to obtain ownership.

In thinking about developing courses, curricula, sharing materials and students, we heard of the work of Beyers Naude, a Dutch Reformed minister and theologian and a leading Afrikaner anti-apartheid activist, whose papers are archived at the University of Stellenbosch. In addition, we explored possible student exchanges and curriculum development at the University of the Western Cape, which has established a Desmond Tutu center of its own. Archbishop Tutu was a former chancellor there.

We then spent two days in Hermanus at the Volmoed Retreat Center which served as a place of refreshment and renewal for many in the fight against apartheid. We experienced the hopes and dreams of children at a secondary school on their first day of classes and of two young women preparing for exams in agriculture at the township library who look forward to instituting new means of agricultural production in their country.

This trip to South Africa was a formative experience, never to be forgotten, leaving many of us ready to return and committed to the realization of the Desmond Tutu Center at General Seminary.