It was a blessing to be able to travel to Israel in June of 2001.

Four of us had worked hard to organize the trip – three ministers and me. At one time we had over 200 people making plans to travel with us.

That changed dramatically when the Palestinian/Israeli conflict escalated with more car bombs, suicide bombings and routine gunfire throughout the region.

The political climate in Israel at the time was growing increasingly dangerous. Our own U.S. State Department was strongly advising against tourist travel to the region. Many of our friends started canceling their travel plans.

However, several of us were committed to the trip and, despite the warnings, we flew to Israel. By the time our flight lifted off, we had only 55 people making the trip with us.

Luckily, during the 10 days we were in the Holy Lands, there was no violence. Also, because of the warnings, there were very few other tourists at the places we visited. It was almost like we were the only ones there.

One of the highlights of the trip was our day in Bethlehem. Every year, as the Christmas holidays approach, I remember many special moments from that trip.

Bethlehem is a little over six miles south of Jerusalem in the central West Bank region. The city is under the control of the Palestinians. We had to park our bus, which was registered in Israel, and walk quite a distance to the Palestinian checkpoint.

At both sides of the checkpoint were young soldiers in black combat gear carrying large weapons. It was an imposing entrance into the city known as the birthplace of the Prince of Peace.

We walked across a wide no-man’s-land and boarded a Palestinian bus for the final part of our drive. The bus stopped near the entrance to the courtyard of the Church of the Nativity. We were the only ones there.

The entryway into the Church of the Nativity used to be fairly large, but the Ottomans didn’t want horses to be ridden into the holy church, so they made the entrance so small that people have to enter one at a time and even average-sized people have to bend over to clear the doorway.

Sometime before Christmas, I’ll devote an entire column to the wonders of that amazing church and our visit to the very site where Christ was born.

After our visit, we returned to the bus. It was parked in front of a gift shop that specialized in nativity scenes that were carved out of local olive wood. Some of the nativity scenes were huge — priced at thousands of dollars.

The one I bought was much smaller, but I was determined not to leave Bethlehem without a nativity scene that honored the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and all the humble animals that gathered around the manger.

Debbie and I still cherish that little nativity scene.

The first few years we had it, we would place it on the fireplace hearth just a few weeks before Christmas. At first we wouldn’t let the grandchildren play with it, but as time went by, and seeing how much they enjoyed playing with “The Jesus People,” we decided to leave it up year-round.

Over the past 18 years, all eight grandchildren have heard the story of Mary and Joseph and have played with the little statues.

Several years later, I noticed that our little Jack Russell, Puchi, also was enjoying a few of the little carvings. For some reason, she seemed to be particularly drawn to little Baby Jesus in his manger.

I worked on her training and thought I had broken her habit of chewing on olive wood, but a few years later we realized that Baby Jesus was gone, missing — he had completely disappeared.

I searched the back yard and found nothing – not a trace, not a sliver. I looked on the internet for a replacement Baby Jesus and found several, but none them would have fit in with the other carved olive-wood figures.

After much thought, I decided not to try to replace the Christ Child. Even one of our little grandchildren remarked, “Baby Jesus just isn’t here anymore.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized — that’s right. Jesus isn’t here anymore. Although his spirit is still with us, people have been waiting for the return of Jesus for over 2,000 years.

He’ll be back, but until then, I think it would be useless to try and to replace him.

We’ll just wait.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist