Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Oh, little slice of Bethlehem

White Oak Christian Church re-creates 2,000-year-old street life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

John Riggs portrays Joseph and Cyndi Sundrup is Mary. The baby Jesus is a doll.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        The idea was simple enough: Re-create a life-size Bethlehem street as it would have looked 2,000 years ago, complete with a marketplace, townspeople, an overcrowded inn and a baby in a manger. Making it happen in a church parking lot, well, that was something else.

        Rick Stewart, minister of outreach for White Oak Christian Church in Groesbeck, first proposed the idea back in the summer of 1997. He recruited Jerry Bennett, a 10-year member of the church and an engineer for the city of Cincinnati, to lead the project. Mr. Bennett and Mr. Stewart then rounded up 15 committee chiefs to direct 350 helpers, all of them members of the congregation.

        “Back to Bethlehem: A Journey Back in Time” debuted in December 1998. The first night, 800 people came. Then the word spread, culminating in 2,400 visitors on the eighth and final evening. Altogether, 11,000 people visited “Bethlehem” last year.

  • What: Back to Bethlehem: A Journey Back in Time, a life-size walk-through replica of a street in Bethlehem at the time of Christ's birth.
  • Where: White Oak Christian Church, 3675 Blue Rock Road (at the intersection of Blue Rock and Cheviot roads), Groesbeck.
  • When: 6:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 5:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
  Other: Admission and refreshments are free.
  Information: 385-0425.
        As early as June, people began calling the church, asking whether Bethlehem would reappear in 1999.

        It has. This time, it's under a tent (actually, three) to protect the “town” from the elements. Some 4,400 visited last weekend, and the free event continues Thursday through Sunday.

        “It is our gift to the community,” Mr. Stewart says.

        Visitors step into a time machine (“Absolutely no stops in the '70s, '60s, 1570s, 999s, and 600s,” a sign warns) and are whisked away to the gates of the ancient city, its streets filled with people who've come to register for the census.

        “Did anybody else see them?” a shepherd wails. “Up in the sky! Angels! I was never so afraid in my life! Did they really say to go look for a baby in a manger?”

        Two Roman guards roll their eyes. One asks, “Are you sure you have not had too much goat's milk?”

        Scribes at the gate are assisting with the census. “Shalom, welcome to Bethlehem,” they say. “Do you have a reservation at the inn tonight? No? Then you may be sleeping in the streets.”

        The shepherd pays them no mind. He rushes into the street, spreading his exciting news.

        When he agreed to take on the project, Mr. Bennett says, “I don't think I really knew the scope of it.”

        Sets had to be constructed and costumes had to be made. Actors had to be assigned parts, and dialogue written. And there was much more, from refreshments to parking lot attendants to ushers assisting folks inside the church.

        After visiting similar recreations in Denver and Eaton, Ohio, Mr. Bennett decided White Oak's should have an interactive twist. And it does. Visitors feel as though they've been plopped into the middle of a play.

        They might be playfully pestered by a hobbled beggar named Alter, or harassed by a Roman centurion, named Titus.

        Visitors are encouraged to converse with shopkeepers, who include weavers, basket makers, potters, fruit and vegetable sellers, carpenters and, of course, the innkeeper. They can listen to a rabbi teach at a synagogue or chat with Martha the midwife, who, by the way, has a live goat in her house. Visitors might also encounter a donkey and sheep.

        Everyone is wary of the Roman soldiers. Looking them in the eye is a sign of disrespect. The blustery Titus is especially disagreeable. And loud.

        “GET OUT OF THE WAY!” Titus orders. He is accompanied by Romulus, another guard. “Beggar, get out of the streets. STAND ASIDE!”

        “Woman! Water,” he demands at the well.

        The Roman commander storms down the street, mocking the rabbi at the synagogue. “You should worship many gods. You should worship Caesar's gods. YOU ARE FOOLS!

        When Titus arrives at the inn, he harangues the innkeeper. “I'm getting lots of complaints. Your inn is not fit to live in. YOU HAVE RATS!” He storms off, threatening to close the place down.

        Last year the construction committee began building sets in early September, says John Riggs, who chaired the committee and also plays Joseph. This year sets could be reused, and tents went up in mid-October.

        “People are just very anxious to be a part of it and help out,” Mr. Riggs says.

        Indeed, the costume committee researched ancient clothing styles, then a crew of 15 set about making 75 costumes. Another 10 people clean outfits as needed. The church's Sunday School classes researched the marketplace shops for historical accuracy.

        Many people expended time and effort and made sacrifices big and small. One example: In order to play one of the Roman guards (who did not have facial hair), Randy Evans dutifully shaved the mustache he'd worn for 17 years.

        Last year, with help from area businesses, the church handed out 14,000 cookies and warmed visitors with 500 gallons of hot chocolate. Refreshments are free again this year.

        The event is especially popular with families. Young and old alike take turns signing the “census register.”

        This night, Gracie Miller, 86, and Velma Nostheide, 87, neighbors from Monfort Heights, make their way through Bethlehem. They came last year, too.

        When walking through the “town,” Gracie says, “You take on a different feeling. You feel happy. Very happy.”

        “Shalom, good people. Welcome to the inn of Bethlehem,” Simeon, the innkeeper, says. In cramped quarters, his guests are getting antsy.

        “How can we sleep with all this noise?” one asks.

        “My servants eat better than this!” another complains.

        “If you seek a place to sleep,” the innkeeper tells new arrivals, “I cannot provide it. In fact, there's a pregnant woman and her husband in the stable. I had nowhere to put them.”

        The street is designed so that when visitors round a corner, the hustle and bustle of the town fade away. The light dims, and then the manger appears, with a crib bathed in soft light.

        Lise Caldwell had the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, all eight evenings last year, and will again for three nights this year. She has been a member of White Oak for 21/2 years.

        Children are not shy about coming up and asking “Mary” questions, she says. Some want to sit on her lap, or snuggle up close. And some are disappointed that baby Jesus is a doll, but it would be too cold for a real baby.

        It's not unusual for adults to get emotional at the manger scene.

        At one point last year, when the area was crowded with visitors, Ms. Caldwell noticed a woman dressed in black. She started crying. Others stepped back, to give her room. Still weeping, she knelt in front of the manger.

        Ms. Caldwell spoke to her briefly. She allowed her to hold the baby. Then the woman thanked her.

        Ms. Caldwell says she, too, has been touched by the experience of playing Mary.

        “It made Christmas much more real for me than it had been for a long time,” she says.

        The shepherds' search has ended. “Just as the angels said, the baby will be found wrapped in swaddling clothes, in a manger,” one says.

        “Did you travel far to get here?” Mary asks a visitor.

        “Pretty far,” he replies, “but it was worth the trip.”


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