For ministers, the Bible is the sacred book of Christianity.
For the Rev. Andy Cook, it also helps as a travel guide.
Cook, the pastor of Shirley Hills Baptist Church in Warner Robins, is in the midst of an 11-day trip to Israel, leading a group of 59 people to experience the verses of the Bible firsthand, where they took place.
“Israel is the greatest classroom in the world for anyone who loves the Bible,” Cook said just before he went overseas. “One of the things we read is (the story of) David vs. Goliath. If you look at the first three verses, it’s basically GPS coordinates for where it happens. The Sea of Galilee, the wilderness -- everywhere you turn is another Bible story.”
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This group is the largest one he has ever led to Israel, and the participants aren’t just Shirley Hills members. Other Houston County residents are there, as well as people from across the United States, including Alaska, California and Texas.
In fact, Cook has formed a partnership with Israel’s board of tourism and revamped his website, www.experienceisraelnow.com, to try to draw even more people to the experience.
“It’s the one place I know of as being really special,” he said. “It’s easy to get lost in the Bible over there.”
Since 11 days isn’t enough to see everything Israel has to offer, Cook has a lot of repeat travelers, and he tries to change things up on the trips. He switches back and forth between a bus tour of the country, aimed at older travelers and people who might have difficulty visiting some sites, and a walking tour for those who want to experience such adventures as climbing Masada, an ancient mountain fortress of the Israelites against Roman invaders.
Phil and Nancy Ferguson, of Warner Robins, have been to Israel several times as part of Cook’s trips. When he first visited the country in the ‘90s as part of a different tour, Phil Ferguson said he was disappointed that his group spent most of its time on the bus, seeing the country through the window.
He learned about Cook’s tours in 2006, and he and his wife have been regular visitors ever since.
“I’ve taught the Bible for over 30 years,” he said. “With Andy Cook, you go out and meet people and walk around. My wife tells me (the tours) make me a better Bible teacher, and she’s right about that. ... From the time the plane lands in Tel Aviv, you’re in overload mode. It’s a very unique country, very diverse, full of history. It’s got a Mediterranean climate, but the northern part is a little cooler, more like Georgia.
“I’d say everywhere you go in Israel changes your idea about the Bible.”
Former Houston County school Superintendent Danny Carpenter and his wife, Shawn, are making their first visit to Israel, along with his brother David Carpenter (also a former Houston County superintendent) and David’s wife, Susan.
“We’ve always talked about doing it,” Danny Carpenter said. “Now that we are all retired, this (trip) was on the bucket list. We thought it would be great to go to the Holy Land.”
One question Cook gets asked a lot about is whether the trip is safe. He noted that some Americans’ perception of Israel is based solely on what they see on television news, which often focuses on violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Cook likes to tell a story that underlines how media perceptions of a place can alter reality. He said an Israeli friend was once looking for a job, and Cook encouraged his friend to move to America.
“My friend said, ‘I could never go to America -- it’s so dangerous there!’ ” Cook said with a laugh. “My friend saw (on the news) all the places here where people were getting shot -- in the malls, in schools, at the post office. ... (Israel) is different. I have to get people to understand that the images of what’s on TV is not the reality that 9 million people over there experience every day.”
Once people go on one of his trips, he said, the safety issue never comes up.
“I can’t promise you’ll be safe in Israel, but I also can’t promise you’ll be safe going to the grocery store” back home, he said.
Ferguson said safety was on his mind the first time he went, but not after that.
“The first time I was a little concerned,” he said. “I was assured it was overblown. The areas where there’s typically problems we don’t go. I’ve never felt uncomfortable. I think a lot of things on the evening news is basically sensationalized. On the ground, it’s very different.”
Cook said that while the tour centers on many holy places for Christians, the group also will visit holy Jewish sites, such as the Western Wall, a traditional spot for prayer.
“Without fail, everyone in the group has an experience as the Western Wall that they didn’t anticipate,” he said. “It’s such a special place.”
Shawn Carpenter said seeing the place where the world’s three major monotheistic religions converge will be special.
“I look forward to see how three different cultures live in such a small place as Jerusalem,” she said. “Certainly, I want to understand other people’s beliefs and cultures, even though they are different than mine.”
Ferguson said the tours give him much more insight into Christianity than he had before he went.
“You get ideas about the Bible when you read it as a child,” he said. “But then, you see the relative distances of everything. It makes the Bible come alive in such detail that you don’t get reading from the printed Bible. When it says, “go up to Jerusalem,” when you’re there, you see Jerusalem is on a high ridge. You actually have to go up. You get a feel for the wilderness that Jesus talked about. ... It’s why I keep going back.
“It’s like trying to drink from a firehose -- you can’t get it all in one trip. There are 70 national parks there. You can’t visit all those in one trip. You can’t put your feet on the ground without stepping on history.”