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First Baptist Church Re-creates The Little Town Of Bethlehem In A Tradition That Goes Back To 2001

December 20, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Tonight, the star of Bethlehem will shine brightly over the little town of Savage.

The 12-foot wrought iron-and-rebar creation will dangle from a crane 60 feet above First Baptist Church of Savage, guiding visitors to the congregation's outdoor re-creation of Bethlehem as it was said to be more than 2,000 years ago on the night of Jesus' birth.

Those who choose to follow the "everlasting light" mentioned in the beloved Christmas carol from 1869 will discover much more than a live Nativity awaiting them at an event called "A Walk Through Bethlehem."

A winding path will take visitors through a compact town filled with Roman soldiers, census takers, a carpenter, merchants and a mayor. It ends at a stable, where the newborn baby Jesus lies in a manger, flanked by Mary and Joseph and under the adoring gaze of the three Magi.

"This is a very community-oriented event that's all about fun and learning and remembering the real meaning of Christmas," said Bill Waller, a 40-year member of First Baptist and the architect behind the three-night presentation that is open to the public and concludes tonight.

Bethlehem has been reconstructed annually since 2001 in the small community off U.S.1 near Laurel, and last year it drew 250 visitors from all over the county and as far away as Baltimore, said the Rev. Ken Gooch.

A committee drawn from the small church's 70 to 80 members began assembling the village on the church's rear parking lot and side lawn off Washington Street more than two weeks ago. Waller and a team planned to put in 14 hours on the project on Friday alone, he said.

The event is all about evoking the atmosphere of the night when Jesus was believed by Christians around the world to have been born, so set design has taken a backseat to acting and imagination.

Creativity rules the day, with plastic pipes, bright blue nylon tarps, wooden pallets and straw - lots and lots of straw - as the basic ingredients that comprise the framework of the shops in Bethlehem's U-shaped marketplace. Clear Christmas lights supply illumination in lieu of candles, and a llama stands in for a camel. Costumes are reminiscent of the garb worn in Bethlehem at the time.

"People will see what happened a long time ago, and then we will explain the reason why everything took place," said Gooch, who was installed two months ago. This includes reading prophecies from the Bible about Jesus' birth.

A couple of modern-day conveniences at the beginning of the pathway - a hot chocolate stand and a booth where a photographer snaps souvenir portraits of families who register for the census that brought Joseph and Mary on their long journey by donkey - are included in the free festivities as well.

Visitors can observe a carpenter using old tools, be placed on a scale and told their equivalent weight in shekels, be led around town by the mayor, and join a couple who have just emerged from their wedding in the synagogue as they celebrate by dancing to "Hava Nagila."

There will be sheep and goats, of course, and shepherds to watch over them.

"Each year, we add a little something, building on what we started with eight years ago," Waller said. A visit to a Georgia church in 1997 - where he witnessed an event with camels and a Roman army on horseback ordering citizens to the census takers - inspired him to adapt that jaw-dropping presentation on a scale that First Baptist could accommodate. Several years later, a tradition was born.

Visitors will "hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell" as they appear in white robes in a 4,000-watt halogen spotlight from atop their chilly perch on the flat roof of a two-story addition to the back of the church, which was founded in 1917.

"Joy to the World" and portions of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" will be sung at this time.

"It gets very cold up there for two hours," said Karen Davis, whose husband, Donny, serves below as photographer. "But we angels have a lot of fun."

A bonfire, which requires a permit from fire officials, will warm cold hands as the throngs head for the stable and a Biblical message at the end. The whole circuit takes about 20 minutes, Waller said, and is repeated until all visitors have completed the tour.

The event requires the help of about 40 volunteers, he estimated, and involves four other local churches. Members of Savage United Methodist Church, Bethel Assembly of God, Countryside Fellowship Church, and St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church pitch in or lend support by attending the event, he said.

Donna Hosang's life was affected when she took her three sons to "A Walk Through Bethlehem" for the first time two years ago on a cold and rainy night.

A dental assistant, she had just moved to the area from Florida and was searching for a church for her sons - Jordan, Justin and Jamel - to attend.

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