By FRED KRONER
Traditions all start somewhere.
Mahomet-area resident Mark Burns is preparing for his 29th pilgrimage to Israel. The 11-day trip is scheduled for early October.
The origin of the annual trips can be traced to Burns launching Urbana-based Great News Radio (WGNN and WGNJ), in 1996.
The first three years were devoted to work, followed by more work. Vacations weren’t a part of his life.
In 1999, Burns heard from a loyal listener, who said, “ ‘I’d like to send you and your wife somewhere.’ ”
Burns chuckles at the memory.
“He was maybe thinking Branson (Mo.),” Burns said.
“My wife had a brochure for Israel.”
The benefactor was receptive. Turns out passports were needed.
The Burns were part of a group of travelers that spent 12 days in the Holy Land on the journey.
Burns took notes, figuring highlights of the trip to Israel could be recounted as part of the station’s morning show programming. He expected to have enough material for a couple of weeks.
“Three months later, we were still telling stories,” he said.
And that wasn’t all.
He received unexpected feedback from the radio audience.
“A listener called and said, ‘If you host a trip, we’ll sign up.’ Then another person called,” Burns recalled.
And that is how this particular tradition — which is now 20 years old — got its start.
Subsequent trips have featured between 25 and 74 travelers.
The upcoming October trip was limited to 35 persons because, Burns said, smaller groups are “easier to manage.”
Whenever possible, Burns arranges for the same Jewish guide, Eitan Ritov — who is fluent in four languages — to be the guide and narrator.
The 70-year-old Ritov is the perfect host, Burns said, because “he’s funny, he’s historical, he’s Biblical and he’s interesting.”
Jason Schifo, the pastor at Community Evangelical Free Church of Mahomet, has become a regular on trips to Israel since 2011.
He’ll be in the traveling party for the seventh time in October. Schifo serves as the spiritual leader during the trips.
His original motivation was purely from a historical standpoint.
“I was passionate about going because of my desire to study the Bible and understanding what the actual ground looked like when these things happened,” Schifo said.
The experience was a moving one.
“I’ve been in Dan (in northern Israel), a town where Abraham would have gone through,” Schifo said. “The original stones that would have been in the streets were uncovered.
“These stones have been stomped on by thousands of people, maybe even by Abraham’s feet.”
The ventures aren’t just about sightseeing, which is why some folks have joined the Israel tour more than a dozen times.
“The trips are multi-faceted,” Schifo said.
Some focus more on the teaching aspect. Others are geared toward humanitarian work.
“We’ve worked at a special needs camp, a soup kitchen (cutting potatoes) in Jerusalem, a small group of us have given blood that goes to Israeli soldiers, we’ve brought garbage bags of teddy bears, we’ve planted trees and painted four or five murals,” Schifo said.
“It’s our way of leaving our loving mark.”
It’s also a way to appeal to a broader spectrum of travelers.
“Some people would say they couldn’t spend $3,000 or $4,000 on themselves,” Burns said, “but when you had the element of a humanitarian project with some time to serve, they say they could do that, and it opened up a new group of people.”
The trips are not just open to believers of a particular faith.
“It’s all faith backgrounds,” Burns said. “It’s trans-denominational.
“The preponderance are Evangelicals, but we’ve had Catholic, Jewish and some skeptics (of religion) who are interested in the history.”
The year the tour group was accompanied by 3,000 teddy bears, they were selective about the hospitals they visited to make their distributions.
“We chose hospitals that are multi-cultural and have doctors who are Arab, Jewish, Palestinian and Christian,” Burns said. “We didn’t want to show any preference.”
The do-gooders were rewarded with a key to the city of Tiberias. In April, 2008, they were featured in an article in the Jerusalem Post Christian Edition.
This year’s trip, Schifo said, is more of a teaching trip.
“My hope is to help people connect deeply with God,” Schifo said.
No trip is a carbon copy of another, though Burns said, “we work toward ending in Jerusalem for three or four nights.”
Groups have visited the Golan Heights, sailed the Sea of Galilee, visited the Garden of Gethsemane, visited the Dead Sea, gone north by the Syria/Lebanon border and south toward Egypt.
“After each trip, we have an evaluation, what can be left off,” Burns said, “and we try to add two or three new sites.”
Though media reports often have stories about tensions in the region, Schifo said he has never felt unsafe.
“What we hear on the news isn’t true,” Schifo said. “In Israel, you don’t feel those things.
“We’re not afraid to go anywhere. We’ve not been advised by our guide to change our itinerary. What you hear and reality are two different things.
“The Middle East is painted in a poor light. We think of terrorism, but the Middle Eastern people are the most humbling people. They love to be hospitable. They are painted with a broad brush, but it’s the wrong brush. They are a beautiful people.”
Burns believes that troubling times aren’t when the trips need to be discontinued.
“We felt that when they need us, when tourism is down and more people are unemployed, is when they need the support,” Burns said. “By being there and showing solidarity, we are there to encourage.”
Schifo’s wife, Tasha, went on the trip with him five years ago. In October, the couple’s oldest son, Jakob, is going and will celebrate his 13th birthday in Israel.
Jakob Schifo has been earning money to cover his portion of the trip.
“He has been raising money,” Jason Schifo said. “I tell people, ‘I don’t want you to give him money. I want him to earn it.’
“It’s good for his heart to use his hands to do what his heart wants to do.”
Burns orchestrated multiple trips a year for several years, but has reduced it to an annual trip recently.
He estimated that more than 800 people have joined him over the years on a journey that is more than 6,300 miles from Champaign-Urbana.
Ironically, the man who sponsored him on the inaugural trip — and who wishes to remain anonymous — has never been one of the travelers.
“I don’t think he knows what he started,” Burns said.
As groups embark, there has been one constant.
“Every time we plan a trip, or return from a trip, we always say, ‘This is the last trip,’ “ Schifo said. “Until we feel God stir our hearts for the next one, it’s always the last one.”
The central theme of the trip, however, never wavers.
“It’s not to convert people,” Burns said, “but to show love and compassion.”