Author and evangelist Steve Ray will lead Legatus’ Holy Land pilgrimage in October . . .
It’s safe to say that Steve Ray and his wife Janet feel right at home in the Holy Land. The renowned Catholic convert, apologist and filmmaker and his wife have been to Israel over 130 times.
Together they have led over 60 pilgrimages — about 10 per year — and they will lead Legatus’ Holy Land pilgrimage from Oct. 8-17.
The Footprints of God
Those who have been on a Ray pilgrimage say the experience is life-changing. Ray’s deep knowledge of scripture and his passion for the Holy Land are among the reasons pilgrims love to travel with him. Pilgrims also say they have developed a deeper understanding of Jesus and the world he lived in.
“Steve has a way of explaining things that anyone can understand,” said Rosie Cunningham, a member of Legatus’ Naples Chapter. The Cunningham family has gone on three pilgrimages with Ray.
“He adapts to anyone — from the most educated person to the most simple. We took six of our children and they all fell in love with him,” she said. “Today all of my children have an intimacy with Christ. We saw this on the trips. Every day they were praying on their own.”
Ray’s business background is another reason his pilgrimages are so successful. He began cleaning offices in high school and went on to found a janitorial company that, at its zenith, made $12 million per year and employed 600 people. The experience taught him how to take care of people and pay attention to detail.
“I was a Legatus member for 10 years,” he explained. “I know what businessmen want. We are very punctual, organized and structured.”
When Ray converted to Catholicism in 1994, his interests changed from business to the New Evangelization. After writing three books for Ignatius Press, Ray had a brainstorm in 2000.
“I woke my wife up and told her that I had a great idea: I had to make a series of videos on the history of salvation! We would film each video on location in Israel. My wife told me we didn’t even take good pictures. How could we possibly do a video series? She told me to go back to sleep,” said Ray.
Nevertheless, Ray embarked on the Footsteps of God project which has filmed seven out of the 10 episodes. The couple went to Iraq earlier this year to film the latest episode on Abraham. Leading pilgrimages was a natural outgrowth of Ray’s many years of studying and capturing the Holy Land on celluloid.
Life is a pilgrimage
“Most groups go with a licensed Jewish guide and a Muslim driver,” he said. “I only work with Christians. We eat at Christian shops and try to stay in Christian hotels. In Jerusalem, we stay at the Notre Dame Center, which is owned by the Vatican. In this way, we support the local Christian population.”
Janet Ray assists her husband on all pilgrimages. Through the years, the couple has collected countless stories of lives changed while on pilgrimage.
“We have had many conversions — not just of lapsed Catholics, but also of Protestants,” he explained. “One couple had come on the trip hoping to convert me back to Protestantism.”
Another woman came on pilgrimage and never spoke the entire time. On the last day, she told Ray that she had been an alcoholic. Before the trip, she had planned to kill herself. Her children had convinced her to go on the pilgrimage and, through it, she had experienced real healing.
Highlights for the upcoming Legatus pilgrimage include a trip to the Garden of Gethsemane and stops at sites of the rosary.
“We go to the wedding church in Cana,” she said. “This is very special for our married couples who can renew their wedding vows. We go to the Sea of Galilee and take a boat ride. We have a Mass at St. Peter’s house in Capernaum. We travel along the Via Dolorosa. We go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”
Legates will also swim in the Dead Sea and sample wine at a local winery.
“We get olive wood rosaries made in the Holy Land and everyone is allowed to touch places at Calvary, Bethlehem and the Jordan River,” Ray explained. “These rosaries then become third class relics.”
Safe and secure
“It is perfectly safe,” he said. “I have taken thousands of people to the Holy Land. We have never once had a problem. Israel gets 3.5 million tourists every year. None of them have ever gotten hurt. There are a few hot spots in Gaza, but we don’t go there. By the end of every pilgrimage, people laugh about how safe it was. Don’t let the devil steal this opportunity from you.”
Louise Rainey, a member of Legatus’ Orlando Chapter, went to Israel in 2007. “There were issues in the Middle East at the time and quite a few people backed out. We decided to go anyway and were so glad we did. We never felt any threats at all.”
“I was really nervous about going,” said Maria Cunningham, 16. “But Steve Ray knew where to go and he made us all feel like he had known us forever. Being in those places was basically stepping out of my world and stepping into a new one.”
Pope Francis will visit Israel and Jordan from May 24-26. One of the stops on his packed itinerary is Mass in the Upper Room — the location of the Last Supper and Pentecost. The last person to celebrate Mass there was St. John Paul II in 2000.
“Local Christians will get a shot of encouragement and pride by his visit,” said Ray. “Pope Francis will charm everyone and hopefully effect some changes. He will address the persecutions and limitations imposed on the local Palestinian Christians.”
Ray said security for the papal trip will cause headaches for the local populations and pilgrims, “but if they do get to see him by some chance, the pilgrims will remember it for the rest of their lives.”
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.
To register for Legatus’ October 8-17 Holy Land Pilgrimage:
Call: (313) 565-8888 x 150