LITTLE ROCK Passersby on Benton Street in Searcy have probably noticed what has become a familiar sight in recent Novembers - the building of the city of Bethlehem.
For the third consecutive year, the congregation of First Assembly of God Church is working to transform the church parking lot into its Living Nativity.
The event will run from 6:30-9:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, through Sunday, Dec. 9, and Thursday, Dec. 13, through Sunday, Dec. 16.
As the walls of the city go up, so does the anticipation of the community and the spirit of togetherness within the church.
Mark Ferren, children's pastor at First Assembly, said, "The best part is seeing the people when they gothrough and the comments we get throughout the year. A lady came up to me at the fair and said how much she liked it (nativity), and I told her it was the greatest thing that has happened to our church. She corrected me and said it was the greatest thing that has happened to the community."
The nativity has also proven to be a bonding experience for the congregation of more than 400. "I had someone tell me that he had always seen a man sitting across the aisle from him and never talked to him before, but we all talk and have fun together in the city, and it has really brought us together," Ferren said.
Ferren, who has worked full time at the church for nine years, had envisioned a large nativity production since he was a senior in high school and remembered First Assembly doing a small manager scene on the frontlawn.
"It had always been a dream to go bigger with it," he said.
After pastor Vernon Ables' son returned from Kentucky and spoke of a nativity production there, the idea took hold.
"We just decided to go for it," Ferren said.
"Going for it" has meant many hours of hard work by not only Ferren, but a group of volunteers who help build the sets, sew costumes and work the event for its eight-night stint. "I've been out there sometimes at 2 a.m.," he said. "We get tired, but it is a good tired."
After Ferren sketches the buildings that line the drive-through production, a group of approximately 20 carpenters set to work putting the pieces inplace for the palace, store fronts and manager that transport visitors back 2,000 years ago. While the structures look authentic, some theatrical shortcuts are involved.
When working as a bricklayer, Ferren happened upon a puppet workshop in which Styrofoam was formed and painted for use as props. He bought the tool used in the design and began using it in his work with the children at First Assembly.
"I started out building a small set, and it has evolved into this," he said, noting that the large walls at the entrance of the nativity are actually painted Styrofoam.
"I had a guy tell me that he would let me use his crane to take the walls down, and he was surprised when I said I could do it by myself," he recalled.
After the nativity is over for the year, the city is broken down in large sections and kept in the church's storage building.
Even the smallest members of First Assembly are involved in the nativity production as Ferren dedicates November to studying Israel and helping the children to make mud bricks for the city.
The inhabitants of Bethlehem, including palace guards, tax collectors and street vendors, have to be attired in period clothing, and for that task the church turns to a group of women, led by the pastor's wife, Carolyn Ables.
"We had about 230 people to costume last year," Ables recalled. "We go to fabric stores and try to pick out fabric that matches what clothes would have looked like back then. A lot of it is just thinking about how it (clothing) would have looked back then," she said. "It is really more fun than work," she added.
None of the women, which also include Rita Sammons and Shirley Hughes andhelpers, have professional experience as seamstresses. There are some basic guidelines they follow when picking out fabric, such as color selection. Herod, for example, is adorned in purple, which symbolizes royalty, while shepherds are clothed in plain material.
Animals also inhabit the make-believe Bethlehem, including donkeys, sheep, and camels. "Lots of the animals come from farms around here but the camels come from Northwest Arkansas and the horse comes from Mountain View," Ables said.
Although the church has no paid advertising for the event, its Web site, www.livingnativity.com, is maintained by Matt Faulkner, a local businessman.
"This is a combined effort," Ables said. "Our whole congregation pulls together incooperation and fellowship."
Last year an estimated 11,000 visitors drove through the gates of the nativity. Ferren commented that this year promises to be successful as well, with one group planning to visit from Atlanta. The nativity's Web site has had approximately 3,000 hits this year, including requests for information from churches in Honolulu and Washington State that are hoping to produce their own nativity.
As it did last year, the church is planning additions to the city this year but the focus, Ables said, remains the same.
"We want to increase it every year, but the manager scene will always be the highlight."
For more information about the Living Nativity, call 501-268-3289 or visit the Web site.
Three Rivers, Pages 115, 118 on 11/18/2007