In the second chapter of this series, we go inside the Christian Zionist community in Jerusalem and the settlements in the West Bank. Micah Danney, our GroundTruth Fellow and guide for this episode, was a unique choice for this reporting assignment. He grew up steeped in Christianity. His father was a mainline Protestant preacher in Nyack, New York. As a teenager, he had gotten into some trouble. But he also really knew his scripture. Both of these parts of his past, his struggle with the law, and his familiarity with scripture, would prove to be critical in gaining access to this community.
Micah’s journey began with a laying of hands upon him, and ends with his being cast from the garden, quite literally.
Also, you can find our previous episode here
Micah profiled some of the people he met during the months he lived in Jerusalem here
ANNOUNCER: This is the second episode of a 3-part series called The End of Days. If you have not heard the previous episode, we encourage you to begin with the first chapter: The King is Coming – The Rise of Christian Zionism.
BOONE (VIDEO): Friend, Pat Boone here, I want to invite you to join me on an educational and spiritual journey of the Holy Land. It’s gonna be a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend both personal and religious time with me, every day, as we (FADE UNDER)
SENNOTT: Pat Boone is a pop and country music legend, and has recorded over 100 albums across his career. He’s also an evangelical Christian, and today he plays the song sheet of Christian Zionism. He’s written one of its anthems.
MUSIC: (EXODUS) This land is mine, God gave this land to me….
SENNOTT: He’s been called a Christian ambassador to Israel, and brings tours of believers to the Holy Land.
SENNOTT: A caravan of 5 tour buses, full of over 200 Christians and Jews, winds its way through the windswept, chalky hills of the Holy Land. Boone narrates the tour as they approach the Biblical Fortress of Masada.
BOONE: This is your host speaking, Masada, built by Herod on this mountain, this singular mountain,
<AMBI: walking up gravel>
SENNOTT: He leads the pilgrims up a gravel path, looks out across the sea and ponders the scriptural significance of where they’re standing. It is a place that, according to the book of Deuteronomy, God did not allow Moses to enter.
BOONE: … to think that we’re standing on this side of the sea and in our mind’s eye we can see him over there looking this way, longing to come where we are now and saying…[Boone breaks into the song Exodus]
(SINGING): This land is mine, God gave this land to me. This ancient land to me. And when the morning sun…
SENNOTT: This trip, in May of 2018, would come at an historic moment. The whole tour group would attend the Jerusalem Symphony, where Boone would be performing this song at a gathering that mixes politics and prophecy.
MUSIC (BOONE): “…reveals her hills and plains, then I see a land where children can run free…if I must fight, I’ll fight to make this land our home. Until I die, this land is mine.”
BOONE: So we timed it to coincide with the 70th anniversary, and of course, the day that they are dedicating the US embassy, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as it always was and always will be….and it’s a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
SENNOTT: Tour groups to the Holy Land, like this one, are part of a 5 billion dollar annual source of revenue for Israel’s economy, according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry. In 2017, the country’s 8 million residents were visited by 3.6 million tourists, a 25% jump over the previous year. For many Christian, Jewish and Muslim tourists, a trip to Jerusalem is a pilgrimage to the world’s most sacred landmarks.
RIDINGS: You see what is called the Mount of Olives, over to the east, a little over further you see Mt Zion… (ducks under)
SENNOTT: Rick Ridings runs Succat Hallel, a 24-7 prayer center that overlooks the Old City’s stone ramparts. From there he is able to keep watch over the Temple Mount, the remains of the Second Temple of Judaism.
RIDINGS: …you see Temple Mount, where now is the Dome of the Rock mosque, the golden dome you often see in photos. (ducks under)
SENNOTT: The Second Temple, where Jews prayed for over 500 years, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Over 600 years later, Muslims built the Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount, and is the third holiest shrine in Islam. To Ridings and other Christian Zionists, this overlapping space is subject to scripture, specifically, Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews.
RIDINGS: God said, I will shake everything that can be shaken, so the things that cannot be shaken will remain, and he is talking about the kingdom of God.
SENNOTT: For many Christian Zionists, however, the Dome of the Rock and its Al-Aqsa Mosque must make way for the Third Temple. To them, this is not up for debate, this is God’s promise.
RIDINGS: …so we think things like that mosque cannot really remain, when he shakes it. It’s not something we will try to do anything to that mosque in any way, maybe an earthquake will happen, we don’t know what will happen. But the bible does prophecy a Third Temple being built up there.
SENNOTT: Pat Boone’s bus tours and Rick Ridings’ invitation for Christian pilgrims to be watchmen over the Temple Mount provide a very specific Christian Zionist outlook on the Holy Land. It merges biblical prophecy with political objectives. And to many observers here, the combination renders the Israeli-Palestinian peace process all but dead.
In this episode, we go inside the movement’s community of believers. As we learned in the first episode with the relocation of the US Embassy, Christian Zionists believe there is nothing that stands in the way of prophecy. As they see it, God promised to shake the earth. To them, it’s not a matter of if, but when, and the believers are on watch for it.
SENNOTT: This is the End of Days: How Christian Zionism is transforming US Policy in the Middle East. A special presentation of the GroundTruth Podcast. I’m Charles Sennott.
SENNOTT: Christian Zionism’s development and growth in Israel is, in part, due to prayer centers like King of Kings and Succat Hallel. These facilities provide a community for tourists and those believers who have taken up residence in Israel. Succat Hallel began in a living room 30 years ago. Today, such intimate and humble spaces set the stage for to advance the movement’s prophetic timeline, through a believer-to-believer interaction.
So we set out to explore, who are these Believers?
SOUND: HOME GROUP MUSIC
MICAH: Well one of the first things I did where I first met people was at a homegroup kind of Bible study.
SENNOTT: Micah Danney is a GroundTruth Reporting Fellow who spent 5 months trying to get inside the Christian Zionist community in and around Jerusalem.
MICAH: They asked if they could pray over me. I don’t know what that was I said sure. They asked if they could lay hands on me. Then they all gathered around me a bunch of people. Eight to ten people laid their hands on me. Different parts of my body. And then they started praying for about 10 minutes. Some of it in tongues which is the first time I had heard that.
CHARLIE: Give us some more background. What did that feel like?
MICAH: Well the first thing I notice is people’s hands are kind of warm. And that felt strange. I was wearing sandals one guy had both his hands on both of my feet. Was just a lot of skin to skin contact with sources that I mean these are people that I’m trying to get to know in a professional context. But I didn’t want to say no to them. I knew it was important to them and it wasn’t creepy. It was a spiritual thing and that’s how I felt it.
SENNOTT: Micah was a unique choice for this reporting assignment. He grew up steeped in Christianity. His father was a mainline Protestant preacher in Nyack, New York. As a teenager, he had gotten into some trouble. But he also really knew his scripture. Both of these parts of his past, his struggle with the law, and his familiarity with scripture, would prove to be critical in gaining access to this community. Micah’s journey began with a laying of hands upon him, and ends with his being cast from the garden, quite literally. But I’ll explain that later in the episode.
CHARLIE: Your father was a pastor. Did that help you?
MICAH: No not at first. It made it more difficult actually because I’m trying to get to know this community. And I’m saying that I’m the son of a pastor but I’m not speaking their same language. So they’re they’re wondering you know where you’re coming from, why not? But then eventually because I grew up questioning the faith that I was born into and because I still have a lot of these questions they wanted to help me. They wanted to explain it to me and they wanted to kind of bring me to the light. So. So then yeah it ended up being pretty helpful.
CHARLIE: How do you know when you’re getting inside this community?
MICAH: James and Melissa Patton are a couple, they’re elders at a congregation Christian congregation in Jerusalem. And they called me to invite me on a day trip to this place called The Fountain of Tears. We got in the car and we drove out a couple hours down to Arad, down in the south of Israel and we had a lot of car time to talk.
CHARLIE: And what about that moment made it feel like you were on the inside.
MICAH: I was trying to explain where I was coming from with faith and my questioning of it and I was asking them questions about what is their faith and why don’t they question it. That kind of stuff and I asked them about their theology and this end of times prophecy and they started giving me a whole overview of it. Christ coming back in Islam just they laid it all out for me.
MELISSA (In front seat): You know, Allah is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He’s a false god. I believe he’s Satan himself. And the Bible’s very clear that we know a person by his fruit, what is the fruit of Islam? It’s to kill, steal and destroy… and the Muslims also believe that their Messiah is coming, of course, we know that will be the Antichrist.
JAMES (driving): Yep. There’s a war that happens where they attack Israel, and they possess all the land again. It says in the Book of Revelation that Damascus will be destroyed and will never be rebuilt, well that’s only happening right now. Damascus is being decimated, and so Damascus completely falls away, somehow Russia gets into Syria, well, Russia is in Syria now. So the last bit of war is getting ready to happen, but what happens first, Israel…(fades)
CHARLIE: When you’re listening to a couple like that, it must be hard to sort of keep your bearing as a journalist and to really think about getting grounded in your questions both understanding what they’re saying but also trying to to relate to it as a journalist, how did you do that?
MICAH: It’s difficult. I I just kept asking questions if I didn’t get something I’d say wait a minute. Can you tell me that again.
MELISSA (In front seat): Because also, the beautiful thing…
GPS: “Turn right onto Shoan, and the destination is on your right.”
MELISSA (In front seat): to trusting Yeshua as your savior…there is no greater purpose for your life, Micah, there is no greater purpose for your life to know Yeshua as your messiah as your savior. (CAR SHUTS OFF)
CHARLIE: And in a way that almost seemed to endear you to them because they liked that you were questioning and then that would sort of get the dialogue going right?
MICAH: Yeah. I mean they appreciated the sincerity…I was taking an interest in the details of something that they hold dear.
SOUND (SINGING): “On the mountains of a…”
SENNOTT: During the 5 months reporting in and around Jerusalem, Micah also traced the growth and influence of Christian Zionists into the settlements.
SOUND (SINGING): “plant vines on the mountain of Samaria…”
SENNOTT: Ha Yovel is a Christian organization based in a Jewish settlement known as Har Bracha, in the occupied West Bank, or what believers here would call, Samaria. It’s ringed by barbed wire, and flanked by Israeli soldiers who patrol the perimeters of the settlement and the roads to it. The soldiers are there to protect the Israeli citizens who live in these settlements, among the Palestinian towns and villages that surround them.
Ha Yovel is run by the Wallers, a large family of southern Baptists. From its home office in Missouri, Ha Yovel – which means ‘the jubilee’ in Hebrew – sends Christian volunteers to work in vineyards in West Bank settlements. The volunteers are mostly Americans, but include some from Europe.
BUSBY: So my name is Kaila Busby
WALLER: I’m Nate Waller
CHAPMAN: Ashley Chapman
ANDERSON: my name is Max Anderson
MURPHY: Matilda Murphy…I’ve always loved Israel
CHAPMAN: Since I was a little bitty, I had this huge, like 5’ poster on my wall, it’s like an aerial map of Israel
BUSBY: I grew up in a Christian home
ANDERSON: I grew up baptist
WALLER: I was actually born into it
CHAPMAN: Even though I am a Christian
WALLER: We definitely had a very Israel focus
BUSBY: We keep the shabbat and we keep the feast days
CHAPMAN: I’ve actually grown up doing Torah,
BUSBY: Just because that’s what’s talked about in God’s word
WALLER: I remember my mom and dad getting like an online Hebrew course CHAPMAN: learning like the aleph-bet and things like that
ANDERSON: We read the Bible just from a baptist point of view and
WALLER: being able to read the Bible in Hebrew in the original text
CHAPMAN: And we began to see that there’s a lot of things that were in the Bible that most people didn’t know about and we weren’t observing
ANDERSON: My brother Isaac he read in the Bible
WALLER: For 2000 years the land of Israel lay desolate
ANDERSON: about God’s promise to restore the land
WALLER: and now we’re going into the times of restoration
BUSBY: all that the prophets talked about
WALLER: Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah
BUSBY: saying that the foreigners will come and be your vine dressers,
MURPHY: and we get to fulfill prophecy
BUSBY: and now here we are, the nations are coming and being your vine dressers
WALLER: it’s declaring that the word of God is true, that it’s real, because it’s exactly what the prophets said would happen.
ANDERSON: Ah man, it’s been an amazing experience, just learn the stories of the different settlers, how they came here. They were the ones who read the promise and said, this should be happening so let’s plant.
WALLER: There’s a thriving Jewish community here now and that hasn’t been here for 2000 years, and now the land is returning to the people
SINGERS: Praise the lord, Oh you nations, extoll him all you peoples…
BUSBY: We just love singing here in the vineyards, Just to sing it all to him and just be grateful, have a grateful heart.
CHAPMAN: We do have so much of the youth that is starting to get on fire for this type of stuff, and what sparked it? What started that new fire? But I think it’s great.
ANDERSON: It’s just been an incredible experience to take these stories back home and tell others what God is doing in his land,
CHAPMAN: I can’t help but connect it to the prophets, you know, they were talking about there is gonna come a time where this is gonna happen and maybe we’re seeing it unfold right now
ANDERSON: that God’s promises are true.
CHAPMAN: what will actually look like when we integrate back into society?
SINGING: FADING UNDER
SENNOTT: Micah’s journey also took him to the other side of the wall, to other Christians who live in the Holy Land, Palestinian Christians. He wanted to hear their side of this story, and why the Christian Zionists seem to overlook the Christians Palestinians who are here, and who are part of a 2000 year continuum of history in the land where Christianity was born. One of the places he visited was the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, located in East Jerusalem in a Palestinian part of the city.
HARAMY: We are faithful to Christ and we do this work of justice, not because we want to have a great Palestine, but because we want to have a great relationship with Christ.
SENNOTT: Omar Haramy is the center’s administrator.
HARAMY: What bothers us as Palestinian Christians is that the Bible has been misused, and manipulated to justify this oppression. And you know, by promised land, chosen people, theologies of Armageddon, and so on, in addition to our country being hijacked, our history, and our tradition, our theology and our religion is being hijacked. Our faith is being hijacked. So we need to liberate our faith from the people who misuse it….
AMBI: CHECKPOINT AUDIO
SENNOTT: The journey then took Micah from Jerusalem, just a few miles down the road, through the heavily fortified security checkpoint that separates Israel from the West Bank.
MICAH: It’s an audio recorder, I’m press. Go through here?
SENNOTT: Once inside the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Micah walked the main road, flanked by concertina wire, Israeli soldiers, and gun towers that line the 30-foot high security wall, separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem. He attended a conference sponsored by the Bethlehem Bible College, known as, Christ at the Checkpoint. There were 300 attendees from 20 countries, all gathered around the issue of what life is like, for Palestinians, Christians and Muslim living under the Israeli occupation. Micah spoke with Munther Isaac, who organized the conference.
AMBI: CONFERENCE AUDIO
ISAAC: What we try to say as Palestinian Christians is that the true test of any theology should be whether it leads us to loving our neighbor as ourselves and to loving God. So if my theology or my interpretation of a text leads me to discriminate or to privilege one nation over the other, or to make God privilege ethnicities, I think we should reinterpret that, I think that is a problem because it portrays God as a God of favoritism… based on an ancient text. And when you hold apocalyptic scenarios about the end times that include wars and destruction…I am not exaggerating when I say that some of their positions put the presence of Palestinian Christians at risk.
SENNOTT: I spent many years in the Middle East researching and writing a book called The Body and the Blood, that is specifically about the disappearing Christian presence here in the Holy Land. In that research we found that the Christian presence has diminished from as much as 20% after World War 1, to down below 2 percent of the total Palestinian population today. It is a withering presence that demographers believe will virtually disappear in the next generation. Then the living Christian presence in the Holy Land will have ended in the land where the faith began.
SENNOTT: Toward the end of this journey, I joined our GroundTruth reporting fellow Micah Danney in Jerusalem for the Festival of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday which is also celebrated by Christian Zionists. To Jews, Sukkot is a pilgrimage festival, or ingathering, when Jews would return to the temple. To Christian Zionists, it is also a pilgrimage for believers from across the globe to gather in Jerusalem.
AMBI: GARDEN TOMB SERVICE
SENNOTT: On day 2 of the weeklong festival, we attended a prayer service at the Garden Tomb, an ancient Jewish burial site near a large bus depot in downtown Jerusalem. Many Protestant traditions believe this site is the true place where Jesus was buried after the crucifixion. It is a kind of evangelical alternative to the ornate and tourist-packed church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is revered by Catholics and the Orthodox traditions.
The host of this event is the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. Founded in 1980, the Christian Embassy claims to represent millions of christians, churches and denominations to the nation and people of Israel. It has branch offices in more than 90 countries. David Parsons, Vice President and spokesman for the organization, opened the service.
PARSONS: Our heavenly father, we thank you for this place that you’ve given here in the midst of a very busy and bustling Jerusalem where the body of Christ can come together…(ducks under)
SENNOTT: Micah had spent months reporting on this movement, and he had gained access to the believers. But here in the garden, on the last part of the assignment, Micah was confronted by Parsons.
PARSONS: (fade up) How did you get in here?
MICAH: I just came in. (fade under)
PARSONS: (fade up) This is not open to the press and I’m not impressed with this.
MICAH: With what?
PARSONS: With you coming in like this. I don’t know how they let you in. You have to have a badge on. There’s security.
MICAH: People were just leaving…
SENNOTT: To be clear, we did have press badges, and we were trying to be respectful. We didn’t sneak into the service, we came through the gate and no one stopped us. There was a four camera crew filming the event, and we were recording audio openly, with our mics and headphones. Micah was trying to get an interview Parsons and had some challenging questions he wanted to ask. That’s when Micah was confronted by private security and we were separated in the crowd.
AMBI: Phone ringing
CHARLIE: Micah, you good?
MICAH: Yeah, I don’t know where I am now… (DUCKS)
SENNOTT: Micah may have been able to put himself among the believers, but now he had been cast from the garden. We caught up out on the street.
CHARLIE: What just happened?
MICAH: I got ejected from the Garden Tomb, the holiest site in the heart of Jerusalem. I spoke to David Parsons, he put his arm around me and quickly kinda ushered me into the adjacent gift store…
CHARLIE: (fade up) What happened with the guards just came out of…?
MICAH: Yeah, when I walked away from David, I came back out to the garden and then the guards came over they just said you’ve been asked to leave.
CHARLIE: They weren’t too polite about it.
MICAH: No, not at all. I hadn’t been asked to leave. And when we walked out, I said, I just talked to David, and didn’t say I had to leave. And they said, Well were not sure the Garden Tomb wants you here either. I didn’t know what to make of that, so I wasn’t gonna fight them so I walked out.
CHARLIE: I wanted to hear the story, here on the street. We’re just down the road from the tomb, I mean, the Biblical significance, you were just cast from the Garden.
MICAH: Yeah, I mean, the last time I saw David, he gave me a hug goodbye and told me I was doing a good thing..
CHARLIE: You’ve spent the whole summer going inside this world and it still feels like there’s a part of it that they do not want to let people in, why is that?
MICAH: I think it’s, you’re either one of them or you’re not. And if you’re not, there are certain places where they don’t want you, I think it’s as simple as that.
AMBI: horns honking
SENNOTT: Simply put, reporting on religious movements is always difficult. People shut down when you ask probing questions about beliefs. And, more importantly, how those beliefs impact non-believers, and in this case, might even shape foreign policy.
SENNOTT: In the next episode of GroundTruth, we are on the ground for the Jewish Festival of Sukkot. We also explore political terrain, how the Israeli government has shifted away from liberal American Jews to Christian evangelicals for financial and political support.
SHELEG: We have much more Christian evangelicals in the states than liberal Jews. Because the number of liberal Jews is something like 4 million people and the number of Christian evangelicals something like 80 million. So from Bibi’s point of view it’s very rational to prefer the evangelical than the liberal Jews
SENNOTT: On our website, thegroundtruthproject.org, we’re featuring profiles of some of the people featured in this series. There’s also a gallery of photos from Jerusalem during Holy Week and Sukkot.
Our GroundTruth reporting fellow for this project is Micah Danney.
This piece was produced by Mitch Hanley, with help from Rob Rosenthal.
Tell us what you think of this episode and give us a rating. Tell your friends they can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, NPR-One, or wherever they listen.
If this is your first engagement with the GroundTruth Project, join our Facebook group. There you will find all of our reporting, including GroundTruth Films and Report for America.
Thanks to Nina Porzucki, Phil Redo, Bob Kempf, John Ryan, and Doug Shugarts at WGBH. Funding for this episode comes from WGBH News, The Luce Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.
I’m Charles Sennott, executive producer of the podcast, and founder of The GroundTruth Project, which supports a new generation of journalists to do on-the-ground reporting.