By Matt Goodman
Killeen Daily Herald
Sometimes the best way to reinforce a belief is to escape from a comfort zone.
Anthony Soliz-Rocha, a 22-year-old parishioner at St. Paul Chong Hasang Catholic Church in Harker Heights, remembers the plane landing in Tel Aviv this summer and deciding to forgo a shower and a meal to walk the streets of Jerusalem.
"We thought it was a quick tour, but we walked the whole city of Jerusalem for three hours," he said. "That was our first experience, and that really set the tone for the trip; it was going to be very fast paced and high energy."
Soliz-Rocha, along with fellow parishioners Patrick Anderson, 20, Deriek Iglesias, 19, and Michael Zachar, 19, traveled to Jerusalem in July for about a month. St. Paul Chong Hasang parishioner and former Col. Chuck Schnapp took the trip last year with about 40 other adult parishioners. The idea for the young men to "live out the Gospel" was birthed from his experiences there.
"Never having been there, we were struck by how it was," he said. "It was just as you would read in Scripture … the actual places and things began to take on their own life."
While in Jerusalem, Schnapp fostered a friendship with a priest who agreed to give the young men room and board, as well as mission work.
From here, the young parishioners came up with money for a plane ticket and the congregation came through in droves, donating enough money to get the young men across the world in less than two months.
"We told (the congregation) what we would like to do with the four," Schnapp said. "They probably recognized some of the names as being outstanding young men and started throwing a little money at us here and there. It didn't take too many requests until we had enough to send them."
From the moment the plane landed, the four were immersed in a different culture. Prejudices hung over the city like a dark rain cloud but couldn't blot out the power behind visiting the sacred sites that make up the core of the New Testament.
"Walking in the footsteps where Jesus walked and living the Gospel according to what it talks about – words cannot describe that feeling at all," Iglesias said.
The four spent much of the trip with 14 local youths at a camp organized by Schnapp's contact. As counselors, the young men were forced to overcome a language barrier, but still managed to teach the children American sports such as football and baseball while making time to visit holy sites.
"What made us common was our faith – that's what connected us in some way," Iglesias said. "That really helped us and it was a wonderful experience to be with a group of kids from a totally different country."
Combined with spending time with the local youths, the holy sites would become the defining experience of the trip for the parishioners.
"I know Jesus was in Jerusalem; I know he was in Bethlehem," Anderson said. "We were in the place where he grew up and did his ministry, so even though it might not have been the exact place, we know he was there and we know that we walked on the same ground he walked on. It was really a humbling feeling being there."
But even the power of the locale could not mute the prejudice that jumped in front of the men's eyes. Their Jewish tour guide stayed outside Bethlehem out of fear of persecution and had to tell the men where some of the holy sites within the city were located. They went in without the guide.
A Palestinian bus driver was shaken down as the group crossed into Bethlehem, after the young men had no problems getting through.
But the subtle prejudices were what stung the most. The Old City of Jerusalem is sectioned off into four spaces: the Muslim Quarter; the Christian Quarter; the Jewish Quarter; and the Armenian Quarter.
While swimming with the youth group they looked after, a Palestinian camper bumped into a Jewish boy. This didn't sit well with the Jewish child, and Foliz-Rocha found himself having to stand in the middle of the two to diffuse the culture-driven hostility.
"I had to get in the middle of it and settle things," he said. "It was just a very intense moment to realize that was going on."
Moments like these, Iglesias said, made him realize "as an American how truly blessed I am to come from this great country."
"The way at these checkpoints – and you don't really hear about this – the way they talk to you, it's like talking to an animal," he said. "It was very humbling to me, you can be treated in such a way and just take it as a way of life – it was just really sad."
But when the young men visited the Holy Sepulcher, they said the outside forces faded away. The Holy Sepulcher is perhaps the most important historical site to the Christian faith: it's where Christians believe Christ was sacrificed and buried.
Each of the parishioners emphasized the impact of experiencing the site. It would serve as a catch-all for the men's realization of their faith, and would cement the importance of living life under God, they said.
"I really was brought to tears," Foliz-Rocha said. "I remember talking to (a priest) about figuring out how to express that experience and he told me not to put it into words; put it into actions. So that's what I've been trying to do, whether that's at school or in Killeen, just trying to be a good Christian and a good Catholic."
Based on the young men's experiences, Schnapp is already considering another trip for youth in the congregation to take next summer. And if that doesn't come to fruition, he said he's devoted to offering that opportunity the following year.
"It was inspiring, and not just to the young men," he said. "They reported to the congregation and told their story, which was pretty thrilling … we want to produce great young men, and maybe even get a priest out of the deal. It would be wonderful if someone down the road from our parish became a priest."
Contact Matt Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254)501-7550.