As Israeli forces announced a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip Thursday, Quad City churchgoers reflected on their recent trip to Israel, calling it "peaceful" and "joyous."
"It's very hard to put into words that do justice to the experience, actually," said Katie Averill.
Averill was among the group of 45 that returned on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, from a 10-day tour of the Holy Land. The interfaith trip was led by Father Mike Schaab, the retired pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church, and Rabbi Tamar Grimm of the Tri-City Jewish Center.
"I felt such peace in that place, which seems kind of ironic, seeing as when we were there, there was quite a bit of rocket fire, violence and war beginning to erupt.... but nonetheless, I felt complete safety and felt at peace," said Averill.
The sirens went off once while the group was staying at a hotel in Jerusalem, but still, they say they weren't scared.
"As tourists, we were always told when we entered a facility where the shelters were, and we were told if indeed there was a siren that went off, we would do the same thing that we did in the states when we had a tornado," said Janice Guidry.
United Airlines even offered a chance for passengers to return from Israel early or cancel their reservations at no extra fee. Not a single person in the 45-member group, though, accepted the deal.
"I had many Israelis ask me whether that was my first time there, and they felt a genuine sadness for anyone to experience that place for the first time under those circumstances," said Averill. "Several of them told me that they honestly feel, no matter what your faith background is -- Christian, Jewish or Muslim -- that everyone has a right and should have a chance to see and experience the Holy Land in a peaceful situation."
Members of the group could only describe the sights and the people of Israel as "amazing."
"I think my favorite place was the Sea of Galilee because you could feel the presence there, because that's where Jesus did a lot of his miracles," said Jackie Christoper.
And the group says they learned a lot by participating in both Catholic and Jewish services.
"They were in Hebrew, but the songs were beautiful. We read them along in English, and it was very striking that our similarities are so much greater than our differences," said Averill.
Now, these women hope the images of violence won't stop other travelers from a trip they'll never forget.
"It was really a joyous experience to have this great opportunity, an opportunity of a lifetime," said Guidry.