The final members of a group touring Israel with First Baptist Church Fernandina Beach arrived home safely Sunday night after being stuck in the Middle East amid the ongoing turmoil of the war between Israel and Hamas.
About 25 members of the group made it back to Jacksonville International Airport on two planes Sunday night — one coming from Charlotte and the other from New York.
Executive Pastor Dan Beck, who has been “holding down the fort” at the church in Fernandina Beach, said some of the group members returned home Friday and 18 more arrived home early Sunday morning before the final group, including Senior Pastor Zach Terry, arrived Sunday night.
“This salty piece of First Coast land is amazing, and we value it so much from everything that we’ve been through this week, just wondering how it would turn out sometimes,” Terry said after arriving safely back in Jacksonville. “We’ve been through a lot.”
Terry said all 54 members of the travel group should now be safely in the United States, though some flew into other cities and are still making their way back home.
Terry’s church has taken the trip to the Middle East many times, but this time was obviously different when Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded with a declaration of war.
“What happened moved so fast there at the Gaza border and then when we were in Jerusalem we would hear the gunfire,” Terry said.
At one point, the group was close to the border with Lebanon but then they moved toward Jerusalem when Hezbollah began to encroach into Israel. Terry told The Morning Show last week that they could see the Iron Dome, an Israeli mobile all-weather air defense system, working.
He described driving into Jerusalem and having to pull over when air raid sirens sounded.
“We could hear the concussive blasts from our hotel,” Terry said.
Midway through the week, the group crossed into Jordan because they were unable to fly out of Israel after several major airlines halted flights in and out of the country amid the fighting.
Terry said they weren’t the only ones with that idea as thousands of people attempted to get through the Jordanian border.
“That was cool to see all the cultures work together,” he said. “We couldn’t speak each other’s language, but we’re trying to be kind to each other and help each other get to safety.”
Terry said their tour company, Signature Tours, found them accommodations in Jordan, provided them with guides and paid for all the flights home.
“It didn’t cost us a dime. They’ve been kind enough to work with us and make sure our people got to safety,” Terry said.
Terry said the group began to trickle home as they were able to get seats on flights after making it to Jordan, and then the rest came home in two waves on Saturday and Sunday.
Terry said hearing from everyone while they were in the Middle East meant a lot.
“We got hundreds, thousands of text messages, Twitter, Facebook, you name it. It’s just been overwhelming, the response, especially here on the First Coast,” Terry said.
Among those helping the group navigate their safe return was Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, who attends First Baptist Church Fernandina Beach.
“This is my pastor from the First Baptist Church. So we’ve got tons of friends, and we’ve actually got staff members who have family members on that trip, so bringing them home safe is our No. 1 responsibility,” Bean told News4JAX last Monday.
Terry said the offices of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp were also in touch with them and were very helpful. He said some of those traveling with them were from Georgia.
The State Department also has a 24/7 coordinating group communicating with U.S. citizens in Israel and providing them assistance through phone calls and an online form.
U.S. citizens seeking assistance to get out of Israel can fill out this form cacms.state.gov/s/crisis-intake or call 1-833-890-9595 or 1-606-641-0131.
“It’s been good to see the community and the church just jump in with their support and prayer for the team during this time,” Pastor Beck said.
Pastor Terry said he’s looking forward to some Southern food — and a special celebration.
“My daughter turned 22 while we were gone. We were supposed to be back in time to celebrate, but we missed that,” Terry said. “A big low country boil would be nice. I’ve had a lot of saffron in the last few days.”
Terry said he believes the coverage of the group’s story and all the prayers back home made the difference in opening doors for them to get back home quickly.
“God used it all, and we’re very thankful,” he said. “It’s good to be home.”