Tony Solorzano had dreamed of seeing Israel. At 54, he'd spent countless Sundays at the pulpit and weekdays on Radio Zion talking about the land of Abraham and Jacob and David -- and Jesus.
A pastor at Llamada Final, a Pentecostal church in Downey and Inglewood, Solorzano got his chance last month when the American Jewish Committee (AJC) took him and 11 other Latino pastors from across the United States -- 10 men and one woman -- on a 10-day tour of Israeli political, social and spiritual life, from the depths of the Dead Sea to the heights of the Golan, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, Sderot to the West Bank.
"Seeing the land where Jesus worked and where he grew, it was amazing to see all that and see the places we always talk about," Solorzano said.
The group visited the security fence and immigration absorption centers, Arab-Israeli communities and Christian sites in the Galilee, with the secular and religious, politicians and artists, in search of a rich portrait of Israeli society.
The goal was not only to show them the places they had read about in the Bible, but also the people who had fought for and cultivated the land and their neighbors. The AJC also hoped to share with these Latino pastors -- evangelical Christians with an amazing affinity for Israel -- "a balanced and complete picture of the tapestry of Israel," said Randy Brown, who led the trip and is the AJC's director of inter-religious affairs for Los Angeles.
Many, Brown said, were surprised to learn about the variance of religious observance in the Jewish state, a phenomenon that Ramiro Lopez of Vida Abundante Christian Center in San Bernardino saw through a Christian lens.
"They are saying, 'Well, we are not very religious people.' But I can understand that. I think when Abraham got the promise, or blessing from God, when God made a promise to bless him, all he had to do was be obedient," Lopez, who has a thrice-daily program on Radio Vida Abundante, said. "Christianity is not a religion. We believe in the Bible, the promises, and we live by those promises."
They were also overwhelmed by the vigor of the decimated Christian community in Bethlehem and by the beauty of the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, and the power of Via Dolorosa, where their savior carried his cross to Golgotha.
"Seeing it through their eyes was invigorating and just holy," Brown said. "The same way that I get attached to Jewish sites, I saw them ecstatic and bursting into song and prayer and tears. We helped make their dreams come true for some people who thought they would never get there."
The seeds of the Israel trip were sown last year when Brown visited a few of the more than 3,000 Latino churches, which are often located in Southern California storefronts and use Hebrew words -- such as shekinah and shalom -- in their names. Brown was later invited to speak about Judaism on the Spanish-language Radio Zion. And last fall, AJC joined with the Israeli consulate to invite Latino pastors from 55 churches to a Sukkot dinner and flag ceremony at Sinai Temple.
Among the Sukkot attendees was Jesus Alfredo Alfonso, a Pentecostal Christian who wore a navy-blue tie embroidered with the Star of David, a menorah and the words "Amigos de Israel."
"Every day," Alfonso said, "me and my congregation pray three times for you. For Israel."
These sentiments, though, are far from universal among Latinos. Though Latino evangelical Christians like Alfonso and those the AJC took to Israel typically think positively of Jews, many Latino Catholics don't.
Latinos generally harbor more abjectly anti-Semitic opinions than other Americans, with only 44 percent holding a favorable view of Jews, compared with 77 percent of all Americans, according to a 2006 Pew Hispanic Center report.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also found that 35 percent of foreign-born Latinos held "hardcore" anti-Semitic beliefs; the percentage was cut almost in half when looking at U.S.-born Latinos.
Which is why AJC is not the only Jewish organization reaching out to Latinos. The ADL's Latino Jewish Roundtable has brought leaders from both communities together for about 15 years, and last year the American Jewish Congress hired a director of Latino outreach to focus on business leaders and politicians.
Improving relations and increasing ahavat Zion (love of Israel) inside and outside the Latino evangelical community was a major motivator for the trip. Brown said he expected attendees to return not only appreciating Israel's history but also its present and future. Solorzano said he already has plans to encourage listeners of his radio program, "Cita Pastoral," to support Israel in prayer.
"It is a commandment of the Bible that we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem, we should pray for the Israelites, who are God's chosen people," Solorzano said. "This trip really encouraged us to do it more."