Manna, yes mammon, no at quiet Holy Land U.S.A.

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

January 03, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

BEDFORD, VA — BEDFORD, Va. -- Here at Holy Land U.S.A., there are no rides -- unless you count the wagon and minibus tours.

Farm animals in this theme park often outnumber daily visitors. There are no lines for exhibits, no costumed tour guides. No food concessions, fast or otherwise.

"Bring 5 loaves and 2 fishes and have lunch by the Sea of Galilee," suggests the park's brochure.

Finally, the playland as parable.

Situated in southern Virginia amid the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Lynchburg and Roanoke, this 245-acre replica of ancient Israel is a fantasy land tucked far away from mall-to-mall America.

Unpretentious and modest in size, the vision of a small-town grocer who invested his life savings in the project, this is where the Bible Belt -- not the money belt -- holds sway. Manna, yes. Mammon, no. Admission and parking are free.

Souvenirs are a bargain in the Bethlehem manger gift shop, from the Holy Land baseball caps ($5) to the large nails "similar to ones Jesus was crucified with" (3 for $1).

About the only thing Holy Land has in common with other amusement parks is a central theme.

With its wooden cutout camels and Three Wise Men, the low-budget, low-key Holy Land U.S.A. is a far cry from the latest vision of an outdoor fun factory, a proposed 3,000-acre "Disney's America" in Manassas, about 150 miles north of here.

"It's like having a friend with a place in the country where you have the freedom to go and meditate and get things in perspective," said Clayton Carroll of Madison Heights, Va., who has visited Holy Land about 40 times since it opened 21 years ago. "It's a break from the rat race."

"It's not Mickey Mouse, that's for sure," said his wife, Jane.

Holy Land is a nature sanctuary/religious theme park that replicates most of the sites important to Christianity in what is now Israel, Syria and Jordan.

Beginning with Bethlehem and the Nativity, the route through the park carries the visitor past Nazareth, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Gethsemane, Calvary, Joseph's Garden Tomb and the Mount of Olives.

"Holy Land U.S.A. is dedicated to the one who loves you, Jesus Christ, and is a living memorial," says a sign at the park entrance five miles outside Bedford, a picturesque town in the shadow of twin mountains known as the Peaks of Otter.

"Holy Land is not commercial. Has no insurance. Please be careful as you journey on your own through God's beautiful nature sanctuary."

Admission is by optional donation only, except for large groups that book guided riding tours in open wagons or minibuses. Fees vary for these tours from about $150 to $350 per group, depending on the size of the group and the length of the tour.

As with the park itself, its creator, Robert F. Johnson, is more David than Goliath. As he neared retirement from the grocery business he started in Bedford more than a half-century ago, Mr. Johnson conceived of a religious spectacle in his own back yard.

A roadside Madonna was not what he had in mind.

Mr. Johnson's son, Campbell, had a vision of a new "holy land" in the United States, with reproductions of all the sites one might see on a trip to the Middle East.

In 1972, Mr. Johnson bought a 400-acre farm in the rolling hills outside Bedford, and he and his son began working to fulfill their ambition. A week after he began working on his dream, Campbell Johnson, 24, was found dead in his apartment. The cause was a heart ailment he had had since boyhood.

In shock, Mr. Johnson buried his only son on the site, declaring it a living memorial to him.

Mr. Johnson poured nearly $2 million into the park, helped by donations from others. He worked on the replicas night and day.

"He spent all of his money, everything he had," said Nancy Dooley, an office assistant. "It was a lifeline to his son."

Earlier this year, Mr. Johnson turned Holy Land over to a local church, the Bible Center Chapel. He has given parts of the property to his three daughters. He often visits his son's grave in the park cemetery and still drops by the office.

"When you work for 21 years on one thing, you have to love it, you don't just do it for fun," said Mr. Johnson. "I became obsessed."

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume Wednesday.

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