Assistant Professor of Theology Matthew Umbarger will be leading a group of theology graduate students during a trip to the Holy Land, which will take place March 16-27, 2017. This trip will mark the first time a pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been organized through the program at Newman University.
The group consisting of nine theology graduate students along with some of their family members will travel to Israel to visit places such as Galilee, Nazareth, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Dead Sea, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the City of David.
The pilgrimage will take the group to these and many more sites — all in 10 days. The hard-core planning began about a year ago after Dean of Graduate Studies Fr. Joseph Gile approached Umbarger about the trip.
Umbarger said, "Every year, Fr. Gile, who started the program, would actually take students to Rome if they chose to go. It was about the same length of tour, and usually in the summer."
Gile and Umbarger agreed the two trips would alternate annually. Umbarger said the students could go on both trips or "they have the option to wait if they'd rather go to Italy. They didn't have to go to the Holy Land this year."
Umbarger said there will be students who have already graduated, even some from the very first year of the graduate program, who will be traveling with them.
The group will be guided by Ariel Birnbaun, a licensed guide with Sar-El tours. Umbarger said he's excited to meet Birnbaun. "We are going to get along great," he said. "Our group will be his first Catholic group, and they [Sar-El Tours] have worked with us for meatless options for Fridays and scheduling time for Mass during each day."
Amy Baxt has never been to the Holy Land and is one of the travelers that will join the group. "The important outcome for me," she said, "is to bring back a substantive background in the life and story of Jesus that I can share with inquirers in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults)."
Baxt recently attended Newman, auditing classes in the theology graduate program without obtaining a degree. She said she was really just interested in learning the knowledge she gained. Baxt added, "My time at Newman has been rewarding and fulfilling, and I have met many wonderful people and have made some lifetime friendships."
Another traveler with the group is graduate student Angie Gumm, teacher at St. Mary Parish Catholic School in Derby, Kan. Gumm said she has also never been to Israel and is very excited to go — and is especially looking forward to seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
She said while preparing her children for their "International Week" at school, they watched a video that included footage of people lighting a candle at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. "It kind of caused me to tear up just thinking about visiting that site," she said.
Gumm's education at Newman is something she is glad she signed up for. "I am in the second year of the M.A. in Theology program," she said. "It is really a terrific program with such great professors! I have learned so much about our faith and feel so much closer to God because of it. This trip will probably be the highlight of the program, but the whole program has been wonderful."
As for Umbarger, he said besides the academic aspect of the trip, he hopes the group will come away with something more spiritual.
"The major aspect of this trip is to get them to have a spiritual experience that comes from going to the Holy Land," said Umbarger. "Making contact with the places where the whole scope of salvation history really took place. And especially those places associated with the life of our Lord."
Umbarger, who lived in Beer-Sheva, Israel for nine years, said that visiting the sites on their tour will have a powerful effect on the pilgrims. "Sometimes I think in the United States," he said, "because everything is so new here, if something is 150 years old we think it’s ancient. But then you go to Israel and see a church that was built on the ruins of another, that was built on the ruins of another and all the way back to the 300’s, it takes your breath away. It helps you realize how ancient our faith is. It’s not something we’re making up as we go. It has roots. Right back to the time of Christ."
After the pilgrimage, Umbarger plans to stay for a few extra days to reconnect with friends he made while living there. He added that he is also looking forward to having an authentic falafel sandwich during the trip.
"I miss Arab food," he said. "I’m really looking forward to it!"