A few hours later, at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, there were hugs, kisses and promises to work together as a group -- as a new "family:" of Jews and Christians, as some put it -- to build on the lessons they'd learned during their eight days together in Israel and in parts of the Palestinian territories.
It was advertised as an interfaith religious trip for members of Temple Beth El, a Reform Jewish congregation, and Myers Park Baptist, a liberal Protestant church. And, indeed, the group of 40-plus pilgrims -- led by Rabbi Judy Schindler and the Rev. Steve Shoemaker -- spent most of their time touring sites sacred to Jews and Christians.
But during the final days of their visit, the focus shifted from the ancient past to the "complicated" present, as one Israeli rabbi characterized modern-day Israel. The Charlotteans got front-line reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the state of interfaith relations in Israel, and the tensions within each of the major religions in the Holy Land.
Last Friday night, as part of a Shabbat dinner at a kibbutz, the group was serenaded by French Catholic nuns living in Emmaus and got a progress report from a Muslim sheikh who has founded a peace center in Nazareth.
Two nights later, at a hotel in Jerusalem, they listened -- and asked questions -- during a panel discussion hosted by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. Speaking were an Arab Episcopal priest, a Muslim Sharia law judge, and a liberal rabbi.
But the Charlotte group seemed most affected on Monday. That's when the tour bus passed through an Israeli security checkpoint to enter the Palestinian West Bank -- and Bethlehem.
For Jews, Bethlehem is the City of King David and the place where Rachel, the wife of Jacob, is buried. And for Christians, it's where Jesus was born in a manger, a history-changing event that, according to some Gospel accounts, drew angels, shepherds and Wise Men bearing gifts.
Today, 30 percent of Bethlehem's population is Christian. But, mostly, it's a city of Muslims.
The Charlotte group bounded off the bus and hurried through the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, stopping only long enough to hear some words from Palestinian Christian tour guide Suhair Sababa. She explained how St. Jerome had translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin -- it's the version called the Vulgate -- while living in a chapel cell deep in the bosom of the Bethlehem church.
There was also time, though barely, to admire the church's wall sculpture telling the story of how David, the young shepherd boy, was anointed king of Israel by the prophet Samuel.
But what's happening NOW soon overwhelmed what happened back then as the Charlotteans exited the church to the sound -- via loudspeakers -- of Muslims being called to prayer. And a sign on the pilgrims' path back to the bus read this: "Welcome to Bethlehem. We welcome you in your journey as we welcomed the Prince of Peace. Pray for the freedom of Palestine."
As the group waited for the bus, Temple Beth El member Ellen Martin posed for a photo with one of the Palestinian police officers.
"My wish is for peace," she said she told him.
His response: "I don't think that's going to happen."
But earlier in the day, the Charlotte group -- Jews and Christians -- seemed to bond with Sami Awad. He's a Palestinian Christian who founded a group called Holy Land Trust to seek non-violent solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via workshops for, among others, leaders in the region.
"The majority on both sides say in polls that they want peace," Awad said of the Israelis and Palestinians. "So what is missing? Leadership."
Murmurs of "a-ha" went up in the group.
Awad was critical of what he (and virtually all Palestinians) call the Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank, complete with a 25-foot wall that surrounds a section of Bethlehem. But he added that violent retaliation by some Palestinians only confirms Israeli suspicions that they can't be trusted.
Though some supporters of Israeli policies have charged that Awad does not sufficiently recognize Israeli security concerns, there were calls in the group on Monday to bring him to Charlotte to speak to an even bigger audience.
After a quick visit to a park said to be where the shepherds heard the angels that first Christmas, the Charlotte tourists went shopping. Bethlehem is abuzz with vendors hawking everything from rosaries and Nativity scenes made from the branches of its famous olive trees to luscious fruits and vegetables.
And suspiciously familiar-sounding coffee.
By Monday night, when the Charlotte group held its last supper in an Arab village, members of the two congregations were pledging to work even closer together to promote peace, to further interfaith dialogue and to present a gray -- not a black-and-white -- picture of the various conflicts in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
"This trip has opened my eyes to the complex situation (involving) the Palestinians and Israelis -- you just don't learn about it in the States," said Ira Bass, a member of Temple Beth El. "It's opened my mind to what the Christian faith is about. And more than anything else, we've opened all of our hearts to each other."
That got a rousing second from Myers Park Baptist member Bobbie Campbell: "I feel like I am a different person today than 10 days ago . . . And I really love you all. Where have you been all my life?"
-- Tim Funk