Pilgrim Caught in Israel Warzone — Home by God’s Hand and a Brother’s Love
Looking back on the ordeal, Schwab said though the trip got intense, her faith kept her hopeful.
“Look at that!”
Stacy Schwab was gazing into the sky with her pilgrimage roommate, Melissa Perala, when they spotted something unusual: a clump of paragliders cascading toward the earth many miles to the south.
“We thought it was weird that so many were coming down,” she recounted to the Register. “And we could hear airstrikes in the distance.”
They were in Israel, walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Soon, their attention was refocused on their guides and soaking in the ancient history unfolding.
It wouldn’t be until arriving safely back on American soil days later that Schwab would return to that moment, understanding with more clarity that they were witnessing the start of a deadly terrorist attack — one that would have them racing with time to get home safely.
But despite the horrors that began midway through their pilgrimage on Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists attacked Israel, Schwab said she sensed God’s protection.
“In front of where I sit in church on Sunday, there’s a picture of Jesus with the words, ‘I Trust in You,’” she said. “Those last couple nights we were there, if I closed my eyes, that’s what I saw.”
“As scared as I was, I just had this feeling that we were going to be okay, and that we’d get out together,” she said.
The two had been traveling with 82 others, most from their parish, Holy Cross Church in West Fargo, North Dakota, including three priests and a deacon.
Despite the trip being a bucket-list item, Schwab said, she began having reservations a few weeks before departure, having learned of growing danger in the region, along with having welcomed, with her husband, Dave, their first grandchild, Adrian Thomas, born to their daughter, Mya, on Sept. 22.
“He was born on the first anniversary of Dave’s dad’s death,” Schwab said, considering his arrival on that date a “sign from God” and one of many to come.
But Schwab began asking God to be clear about whether she should go to the Holy Land. “Then, two days before, I woke up and had this sense of peace and calm of what God wanted.”
Hours into the pilgrimage, which began on Oct. 2, she knew she had made the right decision. “Within a few days, I felt like we’d all known each other for a long time,” and the food, sights and walking where Jesus had trod exceeded her expectations.
But on Oct. 7, everything changed. “We planned to go to Jericho to see the Dead Sea and the Wailing Wall. But when we got there, the road was blocked,” Schwab said. Heading back to Bethlehem, where they were staying, the group encountered another blocked road, with only one option remaining.
“I told Melissa, ‘Well, I can’t read kilometers, but it sure looks like we’re driving faster than normal,’” Schwab said, noting the rigid body language of the normally chatty Christian tour guide, Sam. “He was talking to the bus driver in Arabic, and you could sense the tone in their voices had changed,” and “the whole bus got quiet.”
Earlier that day, the internet had been reduced to one bar, Schwab said, so it was becoming more difficult to get information or communicate. Despite distant explosions, however, they’d been told this was normal in the region.
A Brother Steps In
Five thousand miles away, Schwab’s brother, John McDonald, a trained soldier now working in emergency preparedness throughout the United States, including active-shooter responses, was growing concerned.
“As soon as she said, ‘The internet’s down,’ that was a real indication that this was going to get bad and get big,” he recalled to the Register. “I started feeding her information I was watching on the news.”
From his work on the road, he was also in touch with his wife, former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who was home in Missouri. “She has a huge network and started reaching out to see who they knew on the ground.”
Coffman suggested he call Mark Geist, one of the secret soldiers who fought for 13 hours during the attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, and saved several dozen people. Geist continues to help Americans in afflicted situations as part of the Shadow Warriors organization.
Since the group had been told by the American embassy it wasn’t an emergency, McDonald said, he knew they’d need help getting home. “My worry was that they had no plan for an evacuation.”
Geist, now in touch with them, was also alarmed, and he had begun devising a plan to get “boots on the ground” to bring the pilgrims home, McDonald said. Meanwhile, the North Dakota group was still committed to sticking with their original plan and returning through Tel Aviv on Oct. 12.
McDonald urged his sister to arrange a phone conference with the pilgrims’ group leaders, and by that Sunday night into Monday, they were gathered in a hotel room having an urgent phone conference.
“At the time, I had some real-time intel from a military general to Mark Geist that conditions on the ground were going to deteriorate in the next 24 to 36 hours,” McDonald said. “The underlying message was: ‘Get out, and get out now!’”
But the plan remained, so Schwab prayed through the night, asking God to intervene.
A Worrisome Night
McDonald, now in frequent touch with his sister, had begun advising her that if they encountered any shootings to drop on the ground, play dead and make no sounds.
Schwab had been trying to relay her concerns to the other pilgrims without causing panic. “I didn’t want to scare anyone, but we were hearing airstrikes the whole time, and some people just thought it was thunder.”
She worried not only for herself but for the whole group, many of whom were elderly. “If we were going to have to leave in a hurry, in an emergency, would these people be able to do that?” Schwab said. “Both Melissa and I kept praying.”
McDonald also advised that if they heard shooting near the hotel, they should get into the bathtub for cover. “But we had showers with glass,” Schwab said. So she and Perala made a makeshift barrier with their mattresses and box springs and had their emergency backpacks ready.
Neither she nor her brother slept for the next 48 hours. By morning, they learned Tel Aviv was no longer an option, and their flights had been canceled. Schwab breathed a sigh of relief. Plan B — trying to reroute the whole group through Jordan — was now in motion.
The group was soon told they had 20 minutes to pack and get on the bus. Schwab and Perala helped their fellow pilgrims to make it on time.
By then, Coffman was in touch with her contacts in Jordan, asking if they could send someone to check in with the group to make sure they were okay. Schwab kept in touch on where they would be.
Though the two North Dakota busloads were in a line of buses trying to reach, and cross, the border in Jordan, many hours and prayers from home later, they made it.
Schwab was finishing up a meal in the hotel in Jordan when she looked up and saw an official from the Jordanian government welcoming the group to his country. “Oh, my sister-in-law must have sent this person,” Schwab said aloud. A fellow pilgrim — unaware of what had been going on behind the scenes — questioned her. But Schwab was confident in what was happening and why. “Who else knew we were here, except for my family, who’d been tracking me since 10 in the morning?”
McDonald confirmed that the official — the embodiment of an answered prayer of assurance, Schwab indicated — had been sent by his wife.
A Decision of Character
Now, they had to fill out paperwork and secure 80-plus airline tickets home. Another American group had gotten their tickets sooner, and at one point, Schwab and Perala were given a chance to join them. But after praying about it, Schwab said, they decided to stay behind with the rest.
“My sisters were messaging me until 3:30 in the morning, begging me to go early,” Schwab said. “But we just knew we couldn’t live with ourselves if we left and made it home safely and if part of the group didn’t make it out because they needed assistance.”
Perala had started writing letters to her family back home in the event she didn’t make it and reached out through FaceTime, letting them know she loved them, Schwab said, adding that she also reached out to family, including her daughter and grandson, trying to conceal the true nature of things.
Though McDonald also wanted his sister to leave early, he said, he ultimately understood — and was proud of — her choice.
“As scared as we were for her, I knew she was placing a heavy emphasis on their priority of life,” he said. “That says something about your character — what motivates and drives you, your values and your ethos. It’s one thing to say it, but another thing to live it, and she did.”
It’s a code he has lived by being in the military, he said, but even before that, it was one their father instilled in them as youngsters.
“He was very clear on a few things: that faith, family and friends are your priorities, and you take care of those who need help,” McDonald said. “You do all you can, and you’ll be judged for it if you don’t do the right thing. It’s not always easy, but doing the right thing will always put you in the right place.”
With the help of the various “angels” God sent to help, Schwab — and the entire pilgrimage group — reached U.S. soil on Oct. 11. And on Oct. 29, her birthday, McDonald decided he needed to see his sister in person to give her a hug.
“I decided to come up to Fargo for the weekend,” he said. “When I saw her beautiful face today, that was a good feeling. That made my heart feel good.”
“I’m glad he came, too, after knowing the help he gave us — and the love,” Schwab said.
Looking back on the ordeal, Schwab said though the trip got intense, her faith kept her hopeful. “It wasn’t until we were home that we realized just how scary it was. That felt like God’s presence within,” she said, noting that she had been running on adrenaline the last 72 hours. “But being there where Jesus was, even in those circumstances, was still awe-inspiring,” she added. “You’re on holy ground.”
Prayer kept Perala going too: “On our ride to Jordan, I realized we were very much alone on that road among hills, so my prayer quickly turned to request for a veil of protection over our two big buses. I continue to pray that for our tour guides, our drivers and their families. We had so many praying for us while we were there, and so many of my friends continue to ask if we know how they are doing. A few days ago, we got a response from each of the tour guides on the group email, and while they are okay, they ask for continued prayers. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live there. Thankful for our answered prayers.”
And as Schwab said: “We had Mass each day [during the pilgrimage] ... and offered prayers for the conflicts happening there and for peace.”
She added that, back home, the priests at the Masses she has attended have continued to pray for peace in the Middle East — as have the pilgrims who were there as the horrific events were unfolding.