ASHKELON, Israel (BP) – On Friday night, longtime Kentucky Baptist pastor and former Kentucky Baptist Convention staff member Alan Dodson walked on the beach in Ashkelon, Israel, as he met with U.S. ministry leaders planning future trips to the Holy Land.
Just a few hours later, a devastating barrage of 100 Hamas-launched rockets hit the city, beginning what many Middle East experts are calling the most serious conflict in the region since the Yom Kippur War exactly 50 years ago this month.
Dodson now serves as the vice president for North American relations at E.D.I. Travel, an Israeli company specializing in Christian tours to Israel. Dodson and the people he was with are safe and unharmed, he said.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” Dodson told Baptist Press. “Pray that hostilities would end quickly. Many Israelis are lost and need to know the hope of the Gospel. The other side is in pervasive darkness. Pray for them as well.”
Dodson is among at least a half dozen groups of Southern Baptists who were in Israel as the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, launched a surprise attack on Israel this weekend. In the attack, Hamas sent thousands of rockets and armed forces into Israel. According to USA Today, 700 Israelis and 500 in Gaza have been killed in the conflict so far. More than 2,500 Israelis have been injured, another 100 have been taken captive by militants.
‘We need to be one’
Ric Worshill, the executive director of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, noted that the attack came on the last day of Sukkot, one of the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, is an eight-day festival that celebrates the harvest.
“It’s horrible,” Worshill told BP. “It’s just heartbreaking because this year has been the highest in anti-Semitism throughout the world since the Holocaust, and it’s really sad that they would pick the last day of a Jewish holiday to do all this barbaric stuff.”
Worshill asked Southern Baptists to unite in prayer for those involved in this conflict.
“We need to be one,” Worshill said. “We need to be one about everything. We need to be one about the Lord. We need to be one about politics. And we need to be one about being against the attacks of Satan in prayer. That’s the biggest thing I can say. There should be no division in the body of Christ. We, Southern Baptists, need to stick together.”
Years of preparation come into play
John Hall, a spokesperson for Texas Baptist Men (TBM), told BP the ministry has been preparing for this moment since 2018 when it began a partnership in Israel. The group has multiple mobile kitchens in Israel, built specifically for situations like this.
As soon as it can get volunteers into the country, TBM plans to send in teams to deliver food to people in need.
“We know that there are two situations that create great need right now,” Hall said. “There are the communities that have been hit directly by the rockets and have lost their homes or cannot cook for themselves. But there are also entire communities that have spent much of their time inside, sheltering in bunkers. For safety’s sake, they don’t have access to a lot of food. They can’t really cook safely. So, we’re going to prepare meals for them and deliver them to them.”
Hall asked Southern Baptist to provide a “blanket of prayer” as Texas Baptist Men prepare to serve the hungry and displaced caused by the conflict in Israel.
“Pray for safety as we serve, as well as the safety of those that we’re serving,” Hall said. “Pray for peace. Pray for it to come swiftly and miraculously. Pray that needs are met, and we minister well.”
Currently, Hall is unsure when the logistical problems of getting volunteers into the country will relax and Texas Baptist Men will be able to begin feeding people in Israel.
Tour groups playing it safe
Zach Terry, pastor of First Baptist Church of Fernandina Beach, Fla., arrived in Israel last week to lead a team of 54 people on a tour of Israel. Besides members of his church, he also has members of several other Southern Baptist churches in Florida and Georgia with him on the trip.
So far, Terry said the trip has stayed close to schedule despite the conflict. They’ve been able to see sites in Galilee, along with sites in Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Masada, and Jerusalem.
“When it first started, we were up near the Lebanon border, north of Galilee, right in the top areas,” Terry said. “We could throw a rock and hit Lebanon from some of the places we were at. Then, when we got word that it started, we started to kind of move away from Lebanon, move toward Jerusalem to see how it would develop and what the danger was.”
Jerusalem, he said, seemed like the safest location because their tour company owned a hotel there where they could stay if the situation worsened. He said Jerusalem has been fairly normal and quiet since they arrived.
Earlier on Monday (Oct. 9), Terry said the group heard one of the rockets got through Israel’s “Iron Dome,” and landed in Jerusalem. The Iron Dome is an Israeli air defense system. The group, he added, can also hear fighting in Gaza and see smoke on the horizon.
Since the fighting has begun, Terry said he has heard from a number of Southern Baptists back in the United States, including Albert Mohler, president of Terry’s alma mater, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Bob Bumgarner, of First Coast Churches, his church’s local Baptist association.
The plan was for the group to return to the states on Thursday, but they’ve been told that’s unlikely right now. They are trying to at least get some of the women back to the United States, but that has proved difficult.
Terry also urged Southern Baptists to pray.
“First, pray for the end of the conflict, that it would end peaceably, and quickly,” Terry said. “As far as our group is concerned, just pray that God uses our time here, that we’re able to be good representatives of the Lord. We’re trying to get out of here, but some of these other brothers aren’t able to. This is home for them. We’re very aware of that. We have a lot of brothers/sisters here in Israel. We’ve got brothers and sisters in Gaza. So, we just need to lift them up. And for everybody that’s involved, we don’t want any loss of life.”
Just hours after Pastor Brent McDougal and his team from First Baptist Church of Knoxville, Tenn., arrived in Israel on Friday evening, they were awoken to sounds of sirens in Tel Aviv. A missile struck a few miles from their hotel.
The team, McDougal said, was on a pilgrimage to Israel to see some of the biblical sites in the country. They plan to leave on Oct. 20, but they currently can’t leave out of the airport in Tel Aviv. They are looking into backup plans for departing if the fighting continues to escalate and they need a quick escape.
“We are so thankful that Southern Baptists are a people of prayer,” McDougal told Baptist Press. “We’re grateful that people can be praying for us, not only for safety, but also for wisdom and making good decisions about continuing or finding the best way home. We would also ask that Southern Baptists would pray for those who are suffering in Israel on both sides. We are deeply saddened by the violence that we have heard about and grief that families are experiencing. It’s been eye-opening to be in the center of this conflict that has been going on for so many thousands of years.”
McDougal asked Southern Baptists, as they watch the events unfold in Israel, to renew their efforts to be peacemakers at home.
“The conflict here has been a great contrast to the ways in which we can be so divided in the United States,” McDougal said. “We believe that God’s people are called to be not only people of truth, but also people of peace. So, we hope that Southern Baptists can be renewed in their fervent prayers, and in their discipleship of the one who was called the Prince of Peace.”
Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., also has a team visiting Israel at this time. Everyone on the trip is safe according to an email from the church.
In addition, First Baptist Church of Loganville, Ga., has a team of 40 people in Israel right now.