Therese Park - The magic of the Holy Land

It was January when Sandy Jones received a call from her pastor, the Rev. Ernie Davis of St. Therese Little Flower Catholic Church.

“I was on my way Wal-Mart, where I work part-time,” Sandy remembered. “He congratulated me and said that I was the lucky winner selected for a free trip to the Holy Land with the pilgrimage that he and his wife, Valerie, were leading in March. I was so overwhelmed that I pulled over to the curb and cried.”

For Sandy, who lives in the Blue Hills neighborhood of Kansas City, the trip wasn’t a dream come true. Born in Illinois, she came to Kansas City with her unwed mom when she was 2. She lived here most of her 67 years and had never thought about stepping out of the country. Going to the Holy Land, where Jesus himself walked some 2,000 years before, was inconceivable for her. “Why me?” she kept asking herself.

But when the idea began to sink in, she worried about her knee problems. “How can I keep up with others for 10 days of sightseeing and praying?” Even genuflecting and rising at church had been an ordeal for her.

“But once I got there, I had no time to worry about my knees, because there were so much to see and I didn’t want to miss out on anything.”

How much did she walk?

A lot

,” said Sandy with finality in her tone. “Every day, we rose at 6:30, ate breakfast, and at 7:30, we boarded the bus heading the destination of the day. And until the bus came to take us back to the hotel, we walked and walked. My knees and ankles swelled up and hurt every evening, but the next morning, I was ready to go.”

The trip changed her forever, she said. “I knew Jesus has been present all these years, but actually standing on the soil where he preached, healed the sick and was persecuted and died, I began to see Jesus in different light than before. I can now say I’ve seen and believe more fervently.”

Sandy’s mom eventually married and had two more children, but before Sandy was old enough to know what divorce meant, her parents split and her father moved away. Her childish innocence was marred by loneliness and fear of the unknown.

At age 15, before she knew what marriage was all about, she was a married woman and a high school dropout. Nine years later, at 24, she was divorced with six children, including two boys she’d lose later, and was struggling to stay afloat in the sea of life. She often worked three jobs to put food on the table.

“Some days, I didn’t know where the next meal would come from, but it always did,” said Sandy, touching her eyes. “Someone would call to see how I was doing or a neighbor would stop by unannounced with a bag of something. I always knew God was there for us, but in the Holy Land, I realized that he wanted me to see what he had seen as a human and to experience what he had.”

She went back to school, got her GED, and after her divorce was finalized, she enrolled at what’s now MCC-Penn Valley . While working as a post office clerk and raising her family, she continued going to school, but she never graduated. Still, education paid off, and in 1978, she was employed by the Department of Defense, where she worked until her retirement in 2003.

What would her experience in Holy Land do for her?

Sandy took a moment to think about it. “All I can say is, I will be more attentive to my children and grandchildren, especially my 42-year-old-son who lives with me because of his ill health. I never had a loving family, and I want them to know I love them.”

A letter from a pilgrim named Mary posted on a Sunday bulletin in late March caused me think that Sandy’s love wasn’t limited to her own family. It read:

“The greatest blessing of the whole trip for my mom (in wheelchair) and me was that Sandy Jones was with us. She was scheduled on the same return flight to KC as we were, and after our plane had been canceled, we struggled through three different international airports, and Sandy was there at every turn to help us with bags, asking for directions, and leading us through the dense crowds … We couldn’t have done it without her.”