Drive-through Easter play serves up church's message

Annapolis congregation mounts show annually

April 01, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

There's drive-through banking, eating and dry cleaning just about anywhere. At Riva Trace Baptist Church outside Annapolis, there's a drive-through Crucifixion.

In a twist on the ancient Easter story, the fast-growing parish south of the city opens its fourth annual "Scenes of Easter" tonight.

The production boasts a cast of more than 100 parishioners, a donkey, sound effects and fog machines to re-create the last days of Jesus Christ in seven vignettes.

Church officials expect up to 2,000 visitors to drive past the six Biblical scenes on church grounds during the show's three-night run. In previous years, idling minivans have waited a half-hour to see the performance.

Bill Bloomquist, Riva Trace's music pastor, said he decided to stage the Easter drive-through after he saw a similar production at a Laurel church a few years ago.

"I saw it as a great way to involve more people in the church, other than the music people," said Bloomquist. "You don't have to have a lot of talent to stand around in a Biblical costume."

The drive-through Passion play may seem to some like religion lite, but church members say it's simply a different way to present the central events of Christianity.

It also serves as a way to reach out to people -- particularly baby boomers -- who may have rejected organized religion, church officials say.

"Many times people with no spiritual background are a bit leery of the reception they'll get in church," said Dennis E. Gray, senior pastor at Riva Trace. "This is a non-threatening, convenient way to talk to your children about spirituality without spending two hours getting all dressed up and doing all the things normally associated with going to church."

Riva Trace member Walt Townshend, who portrays an angel in the drive-through drama, jokes that he's "being typecast."

"It's our attempt to reach out to the community and give them at least a portion of our faith," said Townsend, president and CEO of the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber of Commerce.

Bloomquist said mounting the drive-through is a logistical "nightmare."

The biggest challenge is outfitting all the actors in costumes.

"They look good from a distance," he said. "But if you look close, you can tell they're bedspreads and sheets."

Then there's the donkey, borrowed from another church for Jesus' entrance to the Holy City.

"Some evenings he performs well, but sometime he just stops and you can't pull him," Bloomquist said.

Under a full moon last night, Bloomquist ran through the six scenes, preparing his charges for their opening night and communicating by walkie-talkie with his assistants.

"I need all four Jesuses right now," he called into the microphone. "They're upstairs getting their beards on."

In the first scene, children and adults, wearing towels as turbans and waving palms, played townspeople welcoming Jesus to the Holy City on Palm Sunday.

Scott Edwards, a Lindale Brooklyn Park Middle School teacher, played Jesus in the crucifixion scene.

Edwards gripped spikes to create the illusion that he had been nailed to the cross as fellow parishioners dressed as Roman soldiers raised it into the air.

Arnette Jensen, an assistant professor of psychology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said that many churches are using untraditional means to get a traditional message across.

"There are a lot of churches using unusual kinds of music. What you see in society generally, you're finding these media brought into churches as well," Jensen said.

"Something like a drive-through is not a large commitment you're making right off the bat."

Church officials say that many people who first became acquainted with the church at the drive-through decided to stay.

"As people leave [the drive-through] we give them invitations to Easter Sunday Service," Bloomquist said.

Riva Trace, which draws up to 700 people for Sunday services, sells itself as a church that is relevant to today's Christian.

The church has a band instead of an organist. In the place of hymnals, lyrics are shown on a large video projection screen, sometimes with movie clips woven into the presentation.

"We live in a very visual, auditory culture," Gray said. "We're keeping the message the same, but putting it in a medium that people understand."

Though the idea of an Easter story drive-through may seem like a modern notion, it has roots in the Middle Ages, says the Rev. Charlie L. Barton, curate at St. James Episcopal Church in Monkton.

The dramatization of Christ's life grew out of "mystery plays" performed in the early Middle Ages by troupes of actors who traveled from town to town, he said .

"Faithful people have tried for centuries to find ways to make the story of the life of Christ come alive for their contemporaries," Barton said. "On the one hand we get da Vinci's `Last Supper,' on the other we get [surrealist's] Salvador Dali's `Last Supper.' "

The performances are from 7: 30 p.m. to 9: 30 p.m. today through Saturday at the church, 2990 Riva Trace Parkway. Information: 410-224-2690.

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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