Bringing it Home: Holy Land Travelers Are Moved to Action

Some travelers find a place so special, they say that they’ve left a piece of their heart there. Then there are Bill and Donna Matson, who have found themselves compelled to bring a piece of a recent trip back home with them. Now they hope to touch other people’s hearts in their hometown of Boston and beyond.

Last April, the Matsons traveled to the Holy Land with National Geographic on a dual-narrative expedition that navigated the region’s history and culture. Led by Israeli and Palestinian peace-builder guides, the multifaceted trip unfolded “like a crash graduate course in Middle East history and politics,” says Bill, a retired human resources executive. “Literally every minute you’re given the opportunity to learn more about what’s going on.”

Over the course of 11 days, the group explored Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the desert fortress of Masada and the shores of the Dead Sea, Nazareth and the port town of Jaffa, the West Bank and Tel Aviv. They marveled at the Temple Mount alongside an imam, touched the ancient stones of the Western Wall and learned about its sacred significance from a rabbi, and toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a local pastor. They visited the archaeological site of the City of David and met its Israeli administrators—as well as Palestinian neighbors who oppose the excavations.

View Images

Amid all these Holy Land treasures, an intimate gathering in a hotel ballroom proved especially profound for the Matsons. Two fathers—one Israeli and one Palestinian—shared their personal, devastating stories of bereavement with the group. Both men had lost 14-year-old daughters to violence from the conflict. Rather than seeking revenge, they have channeled their grief into a commitment to reconciliation with the Parents Circle—Families Forum, an organization of parents determined to stop the cycle of violence.

After the trip, Matson made it his mission to help share the organization’s inspiring message with a wider audience. Upon his return to Boston, he spent the next few months organizing a sponsored trip to the U.S. for two Parents Circle representatives—including the Israeli father he had met in Jerusalem, Rami Elhanan, as well as a Palestinian man named Mazen Faraj, whose father was killed by Israeli soldiers. In late September, the men arrived in the U.S. to headline a series of public speaking engagements around the Boston area.

“It really comes down to, can I change one mind?” says Bill, a message that he says starts with bringing people together to understand each other on a fundamental human level. He credits the face-to-face encounters facilitated by National Geographic for expanding his own mind and heart.

“We expected to go [on the trip] and learn a lot about the history and culture of the region, but I don’t think we ever could have imagined the breadth and personal nature of the perspectives we got on the tour,” Bill says. “The people we were introduced to, and the sincerity of their stories, made the experience very moving for us.”

National Geographic's The Holy Land: Past, Present, and Future expedition is inspired by the peace-building efforts of National Geographic Emerging Explorer Aziz Abu Sarah.