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Course trip to Holy Land unique every time says Fr. Dempsey

At the Western Wall, L-R: Fr. Dempsey Rosales-Acosta, Prof. Elizabeth Kimes, Rachel Ramirez, Anthony Aquila, Sal Aquila, Sr. Nam Tran, Linda Hernández, Karina Peña, Adele Menezes, and Ashley MartinezFresh from the University of St. Thomas-Houston’s June Theology course pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the director of UST’s Center Semillero, Fr. Dempsey Rosales Acosta, said Israel is a once-in-a-lifetime experience every time.

“Each trip to the Holy Land is unique,” the Tenured Professor of Theology affirmed.

Scriptures Coming Alive

The UST group was repeatedly awestruck by encounters like the 3,000-year-old tunnels and aqueducts under the City of David, touching the bedrock of Mount Moriah, the fortress at Masada, magnificent mosaics, the upper room of The Last Supper, home of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the cave of Elijah, King David’s tomb, the Wailing Wall, and so many others.

What moved Fr. Dempsey most on the trip was the celebration of Mass in holy places, like the Holy Sepulcher and in the Judean desert in front of the caves of Qumran.

Following Mass at the foothills of the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, L-R: Anthony Aquila, Rachel Ramirez, Linda Hernández, Adjunct Prof. Elizabeth Kimes, Sr. Nam Tran, Fr. Dempsey Rosales-Acosta, Karina Peña, Adele Menezes, Sal Aquila, and Ashley MartinezHe added, “Another great experience was to walk through the ancient archeological city of David and touch with my own hands the original source of water of Jerusalem. It was like touching part of the history of King David himself and being close to the narratives of Scripture.”

Mapping the Holy Land

The trip was a two-week study abroad component of UST’s theology course, “Mapping the Holy Land.” This interdisciplinary study prepared students for the journey. Pre-trip classes presented — from the original Jewish context — the archeological and historical background of the New Testament. Analyzing the theological and cultural notions of the 1st and 2nd Temple (where the Jews believed God’s presence was confined) served to interpret the spiritual life manifested in the New Testament and existential situations of the first Christians.    

The theoretical classes enriched the multitude of archeological and historical visits to holy places in Israel and Palestine. Each excursion became a spiritual journey amplified by the opportunity to celebrate Mass in places that included the Garden of Gethsemane, the Holy Sepulchre, Bethlehem, Shepherds Field, the Jordan River and so many more.

Student Describes Experience

Eight undergraduate and graduate students from the class participated in the trip. The focus of their majors ranged from business to biology, criminology, theology and philosophy.

Working toward her master’s in theology, Adele Menezes called the trip “the most incredibly rich experience of my life.” She highlighted many experiences. Here is one.

“Our Jewish guide shared generously from his vast studies and lived experiences,” she said. “He represented the heart of the Jewish people, which is so intricately connected to the concept of land and home. We each received the extraordinary privilege of planting trees in a forest conservatory. To ‘put down roots’ in Israel is an incredibly sacred right and privilege. To tend the land and defend it is a natural attitude cultivated in the new generation by the ones who hold those memories in sacred trust for them.”

Funding for the practicum was generously provided by the Albert & Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation. Each student received an award to cover a portion of the costs of travel.  

Missed Boat and Turkish Coffee Equaled Perfection

UST undergraduate theology adjunct, Elizabeth Kimes MAT ‘09, director of the Herzstein Holy Land Program, coordinated and chaperoned this year’s trip. It was her first visit to Israel. She said even their bumpy first day turned out to be perfect.

“We literally missed the boat for a tour of the Sea of Galilee by about 10 minutes,” she recalled. “Then our tour guide spontaneously got his ‘camping’ Turkish coffee set out of the bus and sat with us for two hours on the pier overhanging the Sea of Galilee — drinking Turkish coffee and building community. We went on the boat the next day. But we had a perfect start to our pilgrimage.”

Transformative UST Education

Kimes added that all participating students have reported the trip changed their lives. Since returning home, they find the “Scriptures being read at Mass come alive.”

Reflecting on this extraordinary UST education opportunity, Fr. Dempsey said, “The concrete archaeological and spiritual reality of the Holy Land became the practical classroom where biblical scholarship and personal spiritual life became a once-in-a-lifetime transformative experience.”