Pastor Matt Visits Israel

Beaming from a spot overlooking Jerusalem, with the Temple Mount visible in the background, is Pastor Matthew Burden of the Second Baptist Church in Calais. Burden spent over a week in Israel touring as many sites from scripture as possible. (Submitted photo) See story on page 3.

By Lura Jackson


Traveling to the Holy Land is a milestone on any devotee’s path. For Pastor Matthew Burden of the Second Baptist Church in Calais, the experience of visiting Israel was a rare opportunity to see landmarks of Christianity, as well as to appreciate the region’s unique multicultural makeup.

Burden accompanied ten others – nine of whom were from Maine and most of whom were affiliated with the Baptist Church in some way – to Israel for a visit that lasted just over a week, returning on April 19th. Among those he traveled with was his brother, Pastor Joshua of the Greene Baptist Church.

While the group didn’t have much time to explore Israel, they knew what their goal was. “The idea was to visit as many of the notable sites of the gospel as we could,” Burden explained. Accordingly, their visit included seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (built on the site where Jesus was crucified), Nazareth (where Jesus grew up), Bethlehem (the location where Jesus was born), and the Sea of Galilee where he conducted his early ministry. “It was fun, and it was a lot… we were always on the move,” Burden said.

Of the various holy sites Burden had the opportunity to see, there was one in which he experienced a powerful moment of connection. It was in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, which was built over the site where Jesus was born. “A lot of the other churches in Israel have gone through successions of being destroyed over the years by invading armies and being built up again,” Burden said. “This church has remained for 1,700 years.”

Entering the crypt that contains the marker requires one to enter a low, narrow door called the Door of Humility. Thousands of people cross through the door each day, which may require kneeling. Burden recalls the experience of heading inward with a group of Russian Orthodox Christian pilgrims. “We all jammed together, funneling down into the crypt to see it. As we worked our way down, all these Russian Christians broke into song. So, as I’m there in this spot where Jesus was born, we had all these Russian pilgrims singing all around us. It was really wonderful.”

The experience emphasized one of the most surprising aspects of the journey – the truly global nature of the region. “We counted Christians from twenty-four different countries,” Burden said, listing Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, and Australia as examples. “It felt like in many of these places like the whole world was coming together to see these things and to worship God there.”

For Burden, it was the Sea of Galilee itself that held the most wonder. He said that while he appreciates the churches that have been erected over the holy sites, the places that were relatively undisturbed and away from the crowds were the ones that were most appealing in his mind. “You get a better sense of what it looked like around Jesus’s time around the Sea of Galilee because things haven’t really changed there all that much.”  

Jerusalem itself was another highlight. “We got to walk all around the old city,” Burden shared. “It’s a pretty remarkable place. Not only do you have all the architectural sites, it’s also this wild mix of cultures. You have Jews and Christians and Muslims, trying to live together in very close proximity. It’s a very fascinating place.”

During the group’s visit, Burden said they felt welcomed on all fronts, including at the West Bank. “On the Israel side they are generally very favorable disposed to Americans,” he said. “Every Palestinian we met was also very friendly.”

There was a hint of possible conflict at the end of their stay as it was the celebration of Israel’s 70th birthday as a country. “Our guide kept us away from certain areas because some of the population celebrates these things and some of the population resents what they stand for,” Burden explained. “So, we tried to keep a low profile those days, but nothing happened.”

The group was assisted in their tour by a Palestinian Christian touring company. Their guide was an Israeli Jew and their driver was Palestinian. “They took us around everywhere,” Burden said.

Their guide was particularly delighted to take them to one location upon learning that they were from Maine. Burden said that he had learned while there of a special connection between Israel and Maine that guides there are all familiar with: an unusual clapboard house known today as the Friendship House.

In the 1860s, Burden shared, a group of Mainers from Jonesport took their houses and moved them to Israel. Though the settlement did not become permanent, one of the houses still remains as a museum in Tel Aviv. “A lot of Israelis still look back on that connection as an early sign of the friendship between our two cultures,” Burden said. “So, our guide was really excited to have a group from Maine.”

The timing for the trip was particularly ideal as the area had just received rain, prompting a blooming of flowers throughout the region. During their stay, the rains abated. As a birding enthusiast, Burden was thrilled to see some rare species that he was able to cross off his lifelong list, including the “very beautiful” European bee-eater. “It was a nice time to go.”

Even though it was April, Burden did feel the heat of the desert climate. At the Dead Sea, he was happy to float in the salt-laden water – but less happy with the 106-degree temperatures there. “That made me glad we were there in the spring,” Burden said lightly.

During his stay, Burden became quite fond of the Mediterranean diet. “I was really getting into the pita bread and hummus. I love that,” he said. One unusual dining opportunity came from a restaurant by the Sea of Galilee that served a dish called St. Peter’s fish. The fish is served whole – head, spines, and all. “That was an interesting experience. Once you got past the look of the thing, it actually tasted pretty good.”

While going to Israel was everything Burden thought it would be, perhaps the greatest gift came from sharing the adventure with his congregation through photos and stories the Sunday after he returned. Someday, Burden hopes to return to the Holy Land with his family.

The Friendship House in Jaffa, Israel maintains a unique connection with its Jonesport, Maine homeland. The house was brought over in the 1860s by settlers and remains today as a museum. (Submitted photo)