Church’s annual project re-creates sights, sounds of city

By Tammy Keith Published December 12, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Nathan Brewer drives screws into a roof panel to finish building Bethlehem Revisited, the living Nativity at Antioch Baptist Church, 150 Amity Road in Conway. The production will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. today and Friday.

CONWAY — The goal each year of Antioch Baptist Church in Conway is to make Bethlehem Revisited “as close to an authentic experience as we can,” the event’s coordinator said.

The church accomplished that with people wearing period costumes, creating crafts and cooking food from the time of Jesus and depicting the scene of his birth.

Bobby Tucker, associate pastor and coordinator of the event, said 250 volunteers work together to make the city come to life for three nights. That doesn’t include the many volunteers who build the city, he said.

This is the 16th year for Bethlehem Revisited, held adjacent to the church at 150 Amity Road. The event started Wednesday and will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. today and Friday.

He said volunteers started building the city the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the winter weather put them slightly behind.

Tucker said the event will begin with people entering the church at 150 Amity Road and gathering in the worship center to watch musical entertainment on a big screen while waiting for their tour group to be called.

They are escorted by a Roman centurion for the first part.

“We take them to three drama settings — Elijah, the shepherds and the wise men,” Tucker said.

“Once you enter into the village, you’re on your own, and you can stay there as long as you want to.”

There is plenty to see and do, smell and taste.

Tucker said the city includes approximately 25 shops that might have been seen in Bethlehem. Participants get shekels, a form of money, which can be used to “buy” goods, such as headbands with Shalom stamped on them from the fabric shop, or little toys.

“There’s a blacksmith, brick shop, pottery, … carpentry shop, rope shop. … There are fishing nets,” he said.

A candle-making shop allows children and adults to try their hand at the craft.

Samples are provided of cheese and of bread that is baked in a stone oven there.

“There’s a candy shop where they can get candy from recipes we’ve gotten from back in that time,” he said.

Deer meat being cooked over an open fire and samples of vegetable stew are shared with participants, too.

Amid all the hustle and bustle of the shops and people dressed in period costumes, also made by church volunteers, are animals, Tucker said. Those include goats and sheep “roaming with their handlers,” he said.

Another area inside the city is a synagogue where a rabbi reads Old Testament scriptures in Hebrew.

“There’s a story-telling shop where they go in and sit down on bales of hay and are told Old Testament stories,” Tucker said.

Longtime church member David Reynolds was there in the beginning of Bethlehem Revisited.

“It all got started from an idea from Jason Aultman, who is our pastor,” Reynolds said. “At the time, he was our youth pastor.

“It was his idea, and we’ve being doing it ever since.”

Aultman said it was an idea he got from a church he worked for in Texas.

“About 16 years ago, Antioch relocated to where we are on I-40 and had space available to accommodate something like this, and we decided to offer it as our Christmas gift to the community,” Aultman said.

“It’s evolved into a Christmas gift for the whole region. We see people from all over, certainly central Arkansas, but all over Arkansas, and even people from other states,” he said.

Reynolds dressed as a character in the outside drama for a few years, he said.

“I enjoyed getting out there and playing the part. I was always the jailer or the money changer,” he said.

“Walking around, you could see people making candles, there was a carpentry shop, and they were using primitive tools, and a fish shop with real fish,” he said.

Reynolds said now he helps from inside the church. He greets people, and when the event is over, he helps send thank-you letters to groups who came through for a tour.

“It’s the highlight of the year for a lot of people,” Reynolds said. “It’s neat to see children and adults get a little bit of an idea of what it was like in Bethlehem when Jesus was born.”

The live Nativity is the pinnacle of the production, Tucker said.

“At some point, the shepherds come running in, telling them the baby has been born, and they exit out the back and go to the live Nativity,” Tucker said.

Mary and Joseph and the baby are portrayed by two different families each night.

The Nativity includes cows and horses in pens, as well as “the burro they supposedly rode in on.”

“We thought we had a camel, but it didn’t work out,” Tucker added, laughing.

After the live Nativity, people are invited to go back into the church for hot chocolate, coffee and cookies.

“We generally have more than 4,000 over the three nights,” he said. “It’s geared to kids, but we think the adults enjoy it too, seeing the reaction to everything.

“It’s fascinating to me because it’s always about half and half, people who have been through it before and people who are going through it for the first time. There are families who have been to every single one, families outside Antioch.

“It’s all free.”

There is no charge for the event to participants, although it is obviously an expense for the church.

“It’s an investment [by the church], but it’s been a real good opportunity for us to offer [Bethlehem Revisited] to the community,” Tucker said.

He said volunteers spend countless hours creating the production each year to show people “the real meaning of Christmas.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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