A holiday tree grows

Bel Air church annually recreates setting for choristers to stir the night

December 03, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

A holiday tradition grows in Bel Air From the branches of a towering tree that fills its sanctuary, Oak Grove Baptist Church in Bel Air offers the gift of song to its community for a dozen nights before Christmas.

Some 120 choristers, dressed in elegant green robes, will perform on risers built into a 40-foot-high, the triangular steel frame of a tree. The structure is covered with particleboard painted dark green and adorned with all manner of Christmas decor.

The congregation calls this faux fir a living tree, one they promise comes alive with sounds of the season.

"This is our way of expressing Christmas and sharing this holiday with 10,000 people," said Paul Simmons, who has sung in the tree with three generations of his family, since the tradition began 22 years ago. "You surround yourself with time-honored carols and forget about all the commercialization."

Simmons, his wife and two adult children will sing from the tree. His 83-year-old father, Alton Simmons, who is recovering from surgery and cannot sing this year, will be in the audience.

Stephen R. Poole said he decided to take the job of choir director of the church on Route 22 after seeing a Living Tree concert last December.

"The tree is an attention-getter," Poole said. "I have been in church work for 20 years and I have never seen a church with this much dedication and excitement."

Robert Wilson, a retired electrical engineer, designed and built the tree's framework as well as its sound and lighting systems in 1984, at the request of his pastor.

"I built it so that 125 people could stand in it," Wilson said. "It is really a tree ministry, the most exciting tree I have ever had."

Wilson, 72, of Bel Air, still oversees the tree's annual reconstruction - from about 1,000 pieces - on the first Monday of November.

"It takes 20 men an entire day just to get the steel up," he said. "The bolts have to fit perfectly. You have to put it together in sequence and line it up or it won't fit."

The church's original $10,000 investment in the tree was fully recovered from donations at the first concerts. Those offerings now pay for utility costs and new decorations. Remaining money goes into the church's benevolence fund for community outreach.

"It always pays for itself," Wilson said.

Ladders are attached to either side of the tree to enable singers to climb to their assigned spots, and a safety net is hung across the back, although no one has ever fallen, they said.

Then the decorators set to work, adding golden angels, festive greenery, multicolored balls and more than 40,000 lights to branches that conceal the risers. Fully decorated and occupied, it weighs about 8 tons, Wilson said.

The bottom row holds about 20 singers. The wooden risers become shorter at each level of the triangular frame and the number of choristers also decreases. A lone singer stands on the top row beneath a gleaming white star, which adds another 11 feet to the height of the tree.

The choir members, who range in age from 20 to the late 70s, rehearse for months, rotating the repertoire every year. Retha Wilson, 77, of Abingdon has sung in the tree since it was first built. She is not related to Robert Wilson.

"I am not too old to climb into that tree and sing," she said. "It's not a comfortable place, but you forget that once you look out on a sea of faces."

Alto Diane Henderson has stood about halfway up the tree in the fifth row every year.

"You can't be shy," she said. "After all, you are standing in a tree."

Before each performance, the choir says a brief prayer and reads cards from those who have attended previous performances.

"The cards really gear us up," Henderson said. "We hear from people who never come to church, but have come to see this tree. We know we have a large impact on people."

About 200 volunteers assist the choir and make sure concerts run smoothly. They baby-sit, prepare meals for those who arrive right from work, hand out programs and manage the parking lot.

The concert this year includes traditional and festive music and a bit of drama.

"This is a live presentation to let the community know how much we appreciate them and to share the greatest story ever told," Poole said. "It's an act of love that will help people reflect on the reason for the season and think more about giving than the hectic lives we live."

The church can seat 850 at each of a dozen performances. Even without advertising, the free tickets go quickly. A few are held back for emergencies, said Priscilla Davis, who maintains a waiting list should any cancellations occur.

"People of all denominations come year after year," Davis said. "Some people stand outside and wait for a ticket."

Months of rehearsing, days of constructing and hours of decorating will culminate in the first performance at 7 p.m. today. More performances are scheduled through Dec. 17.

"You just have to see what this tree does," Henderson said. "It is our ministry to give the real message of Christmas to Harford County."

If nothing else, Davis said, "This beautiful sight makes you want to go home and wait for Christmas."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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