PETACH TIKVA, Israel — It’s not your typical mission trip. The volunteers from Alabama are taking tickets, not handing out tracts. Sure, they’re helping people, but it’s in finding parking. And the faith shared inside the Baptist Village gates is a very particular one: the gospel of baseball.
The dusty bleachers are packed with gun-slinging, tanned soldiers, alongside Orthodox Jews with headscarves and babies. Cheering is in Hebrew, English and Spanish. A Mexican-Jewish baseball player misses the ball and swears in Arabic about somebody’s mother.
It’s all a day’s work at the Baptist Village, which is serving as the baseball and softball sites of the Maccabiah Games, the international Jewish Olympics that were held this year from July 10-21. At the helm is the affable Herbby Geer, late of Gordo, Ala., and now a Southern Baptist Convention representative in Israel. For 10 days, the Village is also hosting a group from Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Birmingham, as well as a Tampa delegation.
“We love the Jewish people,” says Shades Mountain volunteer Mark Merritt, a computer technician. He doesn’t always agree with Israel’s actions. Still, he says, “U.S. policy should always be pro-Israel. Otherwise the future of the U.S. is in jeopardy.
“That doesn’t mean Israel is perfect,” he continues. “But God is not going to bless a nation that doesn’t bless Israel.”
Just down the road from the Village, a suspicious box found on the side of the road has caused an angry traffic jam. The bomb squad opens it to find a tangle of inert wires. A note in Hebrew, apparently penned by right-wing Jewish activists, warns, “Disengagement will blow up in your face.” It is a reminder that the country is roiled by the impending withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a predominately Palestinian territory under Israeli control since 1967. Some of the strip’s Israeli settlers and their supporters have vowed to stop the disengagement process by any means necessary.
It has only been one day since a Palestinian with a real bomb killed five civilians shopping in Netanya, the Israeli city that Geer now calls home.
But the baseball diamond could almost make you forget. Volunteer Joanne Williamson, a Birmingham stay-at-home mom, says she teased a man the other day for matching his orange T-shirt and skullcap — unaware that orange has been claimed by the anti-disengagement movement.
“I don’t even know enough about the situation to try and comment,” Williamson says now.
The Village, originally an orphanage on the Yarkon River just outside Tel Aviv, built and leased baseball fields as an overture to the community, Geer says.
He has been living in Israel full time since 1997. His 13-year-old son, mostly raised in Israel, recently had a “Baptist bar mitzvah,” a hybrid invention in which he read from both Old and New Testaments.
Drawn to Israel as “a great way to deepen the relation with God and also be challenged on it,” Geer is now fluent in Hebrew and freely quotes from the Bible in its original language.
He avoids talk of the politics that rages outside the Village gates and only occasionally creeps inside them. “We walk the line on the Gaza pullout,” he says, “because we understand the complications on the ground.”
Back on the diamond, the mood is merry. The crowd is being led in a multinational rendition of what could be the hymn of the baseball creed: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Irin Carmon is a native Israeli raised in the United States. She is a recent graduate of Harvard University and a Star reporting intern.