LONOKE — There might not be a better Christmastime story to feature than one about a small church on Bethlehem Road in Lonoke that relates the story of Christmas to people through the use of wooden displays.
“It just always meant so much to my mom and dad, and it means a lot to the community,” said Brenda Phillips, one of the organizers of the annual Christmas Road to Bethlehem. “It is a chance for us to share the Gospel and share the Christmas story.”
The Christmas Road to Bethlehem is a 2.5-mile display of scenes and posted readable Scriptures that depict the Christmas story. The display ends with a Nativity scene at Bethlehem United Methodist Church, 2540 Bethlehem Road.
“I have Bethlehem Road written on my checks, and I get comments all the time — from people all over the state of Arkansas — commenting on the display,” Phillips said. “I am always amazed at how many people have been down the road.
“It just means a lot to carry on this tradition. People will bring their kids out there when they are small and read the Scripture as they go down the road.”
The Christmas Road to Bethlehem was started in 1987 by Phillips’ mother, Jeaneane Nipper, who died in 2004. Phillips’ dad, Jerry Nipper, who died about five years ago, was a lifetime member of Bethlehem United Methodist Church and was a pastor at the church for about six years.
“My mother-in-law said this would be the perfect opportunity to tell the story of Jesus,” said Ricky Phillips, Brenda Phillips’ husband of 46 years. “The little church is named Bethlehem United Methodist Church, and [Arkansas] Highway 31 runs east right up to the church, just like the star of Bethlehem.
“It is just kind of a tradition and a way of letting people know about the birth of Christ. It is important to me that as long as I’m around, this gets done.”
The display opened Dec. 1 and will run until Jan. 1. Ricky, 67, said that in the past, he and Brenda did most of the preparation by themselves, but this year, he hired someone to help and also enlisted his 14-year-old grandson, Everett Hollingshead, to assist in the effort. Ricky said that hopefully, his grandson will keep the tradition going.
“Not a lot of people go to church, and this is a way for them to get out and question things,” Ricky said. “It is a good witness program, actually. We have help from the community, and they feel good about having the scenes in the yard being lit up.
“It is a time of celebration for Christmas.”
Just about every scene features Scripture from the Bible and is large enough to be seen from people’s cars.
“We usually have a pretty good line of traffic, especially as it gets closer to Christmas,” Ricky said. “It is a good story to be told. They can read the Scripture and go all the way to the church and see the manger scene.”
Ricky has lived in Lonoke County for most of his life but has lived on Bethlehem Road for 36 years. He said the displays are cut out of plywood and painted, and in the years they have been used, he has either refurbished them or redone the ones that had deteriorated from the weather.
He said that one year, the church did a live Nativity scene.
“It was so cold,” Ricky said. “I can remember doing that, and we enjoyed it. Might get around to doing that again one of these days.”
Under normal circumstances, the church hosts an open house with some sort of entertainment, including a live band. Brenda said the Hallelujah Harmony Quartet and the Stoney Ridge Bluegrass Band have performed at the church in the past. Because of current safety regulations as a result of COVID-19, however, the church decided not to have an open house this year.
“Our open houses usually have a pretty good turnout,” Brenda said. “For our little church, we usually have about 100 to 150 people show up each night for the open houses.”
Deborah Harrison has been the senior pastor at Bethlehem only since July 2019, but she said the event is more than just a church effort — it is a community effort.
“It really means something to us that people are willing to cooperate to do this together,” she said. “And in this day and time, it is pretty awesome.”
Harrison said the church just acts more like the instigator, and it’s the people who facilitate the event. She said it is the neighborhood residents who allow the displays to be in their yards and furnish the electricity. She said it wouldn’t happen without the whole street cooperating.
Harrison said that for the event to continue for more than 30 years just shows how much effort is put into The Christmas Road to Bethlehem by the neighborhood.
“It is wonderful,” she said.
Brenda said that when her mom first came up with the idea, she went to everyone’s house and talked to them about it to get their permission.
“They were very excited,” Brenda said. “The whole community helped get the word out and have the spirit of Christmas.
“The whole community does a good job.”