Thursday, January 05, 2006

Entering the Holy Land

AMMAN, JORDAN: Arriving alone in Amman, Jordan in the spring of 1985 presented no problems. An immigration officer at the airport matter-of-factly gave me a 30-day visa.

Two days earlier in Istanbul (see previous post,) I had been separated from the tour group with which I was traveling to the Holy Land. My problem had been compounded by the fact that I was the only non-Methodist in a group comprised of Methodist ministers. I later learned that concluded I had used their group to get to Turkey, and that our unscheduled stop in that country had been part of some clandestine plan. They had gone ahead without me, giving it little more thought. When I arrived in Jordan, they had already left that country by bus and were somewhere in Israel.

It was evening when I landed in Amman. I checked into a hotel, expecting to buy a ticket the next morning for the two hour bus trip to Jerusalem. That morning a travel agent near the hotel gave me the distressing news. Israel and Jordan were officially at war with each other, and have been since the six day war of 1967. There is absolutely no public transportation between the two countries.

“A tour group is different,” the agent explained. “Both Jordan and Israel need the tourist dollars, so they have an agreement to allow foreign pilgrims to cross the border with a special visa. There is no way a person can make the journey alone.”

Back at my hotel I began calling in search of a tour group. Eureka! There was a bus load of Christian pilgrims eating a late breakfast at a hotel across the city. In less than an hour they were leaving for Israel.

I ran to catch a taxi. Arriving at the hotel restaurant which was full of Americans, I asked for the tour leader. To my delight he turned out to be Kash Amburgy, a Pentecostal preacher from Lebanon, Ohio. When I introduced myself he said he was an old acquaintance of my father.

Sitting in the back of the bus, traveling toward the Israeli border, I felt great. “God is so good,” I thought. I had an unexpected adventure in Istanbul, and now I’m safely on my way to Jerusalem.”

As we neared the border it was obvious we were in a war zone. There were soldiers, tanks, and bunkers at frequent intervals. About 100 years short of where the Allenby Bridge crosses the Jordan River into Israel, the bus came to a halt. Twenty soldiers armed with submachine guns surrounded us. Mr. Amburgy assured our group that this was just a routine stop.

One soldier boarded the bus and walked down the aisle checking passports. When he looked at mine his stoical expression suddenly changed. “You don’t belong on this bus,” he growled. “Come with me.”

A young couple with whom I had been talking became frantic. “Quick,” they insisted. “Give us your home telephone number. We’ll call your family and tell them where you are. I tossed them my card as the soldier yanked me off the bus.

The 20 soldiers outside gathered around me, much as those had done a couple of days earlier at the airport in Istanbul, except these seemed even more excited. Across the river Israeli artillery was pointed toward the Jordanians through bunkers and barbed wire. I prayed beneath my breath, “Lord, please get me over to that side of the river.”

From the stamp in my passport It was evident to the soldiers I had entered Jordan alone, from Turkey, and was not part of this group from Ohio. Under the hot desert sun they seemed to argue endlessly among themselves concerning how to handle the matter.

All of a sudden Mr. Amburgy, with holy boldness, cam e storming off the bus. With a red face and a loud commanding voice he waded into the circle of soldiers. “This boy’s with me; I know his daddy. He comes from a very important family back in America. Now you let him go!

To my utter amazement the officer who seemed to be in charge gave a disgusted grunt and motioned us both back onto the bus. We rolled over the Allenby Bridge, across the muddy Jordan, and into the Promised Land.

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