At least three Tennessee Baptist church teams were in Israel on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants brutally attacked the country, which has retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza.
As of Oct. 11, the reported death toll was near 2,000 people killed and 2,700 injured in Israel and at least 900 people killed and 4,500 injured in Gaza.
Two churches — Sunnyside Baptist in Kingsport and First Baptist Dyer — have left the country.
RELATED: Check out other stories on the crisis in Israel.
Forty-eight members of Sunnyside Baptist, including pastor Bill Sims, were able to leave Israel on Oct. 10, flying to Atlanta where they took a bus to Kingsport late in the evening.
‘Looks of relief on everyone’s faces’
Associate pastor David Luster told News Channel 11 (WJHL) in Kingsport that the church was finally at ease once they learned their fellow church members and pastor were stateside.
Tammy Rogers, director of children’s services at the church, told News Channel 11 that, while on the ride back to Kingsport, she could sense the anxiousness evaporating.
“I have seen lots of smiles and looks of relief on everyone’s faces,” she wrote in a text, the television station reported.
“We are all so appreciative of the prayers of our families, church, community and all over the States. It’s been a comfort knowing we’ve had so many interceding on our behalf for our safety and travel,” she added.
WJHL reported on Oct. 8 that the church held a special time of prayer. Luster had received a text from Sims informing him the team was safe and he read the email to the church, the station reported.
Luster told WJHL that he felt it would be good for the people “to come together in unison and just lift up those 48 people, and pray for Israel as well,” according to the news report.
A team from First Baptist Church Dyer, was scheduled to leave Israel on Oct. 12, but were able to leave on Oct. 11 and were flying to Dallas, said associate pastor Stephen Lacy. The Dyer team also included pastor Larry Reagan of Moore’s Chapel Baptist Church, Dresden.
He noted members of First Baptist met for two hours on Oct. 9 to pray. “We are thankful for everybody who prayed for our team. We are still praying as they return and also for the country of Israel,” Lacy said.
Team member Doug Duncan spoke with the Baptist and Reflector while waiting at the Dallas airport to return. They had to divide into two groups for the return trip. The first group left about 30 minutes before the other, but they were going to reunite with each other in the Nashville airport, Duncan said. Both groups arrived safely.
A third Tennessee team from First Baptist Church Knoxville is still in the country.
Sirens and missiles
Just hours after pastor Brent McDougal and his team from First Baptist arrived in Israel on Friday evening (Oct. 6), they were awoken to sounds of sirens in Tel Aviv. A missile struck a few miles from their hotel.
The team, McDougal said, was on a pilgrimage to Israel to see some of the biblical sites in the country. They plan to leave on Oct. 20, but they currently can’t leave out of the airport in Tel Aviv. They are looking into backup plans for departing if the fighting continues to escalate and they need a quick exit out of the country.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported late on Oct. 11 that after five days of moving farther from missile strikes, the FBC group has scheduled new flights and expects to be back in the U.S. by Oct. 19.
Ready to be home
Four members of the group of 12 split off and traveled to Jordan to secure flights in the next few days. The rest of the group booked flights on Israeli airlines out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the newspaper reported.
From Tel Aviv, the FBC members plan to fly to an airport where a U.S. carrier could take them home. Major U.S. airlines like Delta and American Airlines have suspended flights into Israel as Israeli airlines focus on bringing thousands of reservists in and getting foreign travelers out, according to the News-Sentinel article.