In the holy waters of the River Jordan, John the Baptist first recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God at His Baptism. The Gospel of John tells us, “This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
This sacred site was forgotten for centuries, but there were clues to its precise location: Local Bedouins recalled pilgrims from years past; documents detailed the journeys of many faithful through the centuries; archeological digs unearthed pottery, remains of mosaics and baptismal pools, and the remains of several churches.
In 2006, Jordan’s King Abdullah II ibn al-Hussein learned that the site of Jesus’ Baptism had been found and verified. He understood the magnitude of this find for Christians the world over, and he granted this holy land to seven Christian churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) was one of the fortunate recipients of a parcel of land on the banks of the Jordan River.
Immediately, the ELCJHL began plans to build a church and pilgrimage and retreat center. The Mission Investment Fund was honored to provide a loan for this special project. This is an opportunity for MIF and the ELCA both to support its sister church in the Holy Land, and to help provide all church members a sacred place to make a pilgrimage.
“This holy site is very important for Lutherans,” says the Rt. Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the ELCJHL. “By making this gift of land to us, King Abdullah II is reaching out to Christians in the Middle East. He wants to encourage and strengthen our presence here in Jordan.”
The focal point of the ELCJHL’s Baptismal Site project is the Evangelical Lutheran Church at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan with a capacity for 200 worshipers. The church will host worship for Lutherans and others and offer a welcoming destination for pilgrims from all nations.
“We hope to make this a center of pilgrimage for people from the United States and from around the world. All people are welcome to experience the love of God at the Baptismal Site,” Bishop Younan says. “The ELCJHL is also deeply grateful to MIF and the ELCA for assistance in building at this sacred site. Without funding from MIF, this project would not have happened.”
The much anticipated dedication of the site fittingly took place on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2014. The event was attended by clergy, royalty, friends and supporters from around the globe.
MIF President and CEO Eva M. Roby attended the dedication. “The Mission Investment Fund is humbled to be able to participate in a building project at such a sacred site,” she says. “Our mission is to help churches grow and expand, and it is especially inspirational to support such important work in the Holy Land. We know this Pilgrimage and Retreat Center at the Baptismal Site will beckon the faithful for generations to come.”
Newly appointed pastor, the Rev. Rolf Pearson, a pastor from the Church of Sweden who has worked around the world, is excited about the opportunities the Baptismal Site brings. “Baptism is such an important part in the life of the church,” he says. “A pilgrimage center here for local Christians as well as for people from all nations will be compelling.” Pastor Pearson’s wife, Kerstin, will be instrumental in starting up the retreat center.
Other churches receiving Jordan River land are: the Roman Catholic Church, Maronite Church, Armenian Church, Coptic Church, Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church. All of the churches’ properties are within several hundred feet of the original site of Jesus’ Baptism.