When the Virgin Mary first showed up in Rolling Bay, circa 2011 A.D., people assumed she was protesting.
The Occupy Movement had installed swarms of people, normal and otherwise, in public places around America, so it sort of made sense that a preggo lady, surrounded by sheep, constructing wooden shelters in a church parking lot, might also be angry about Wall Street. The neighbors didn’t think twice about her strange clothing.
But Mary, mother of God, had a different mission for her December materialization. She was retelling her birth story, as zealous mothers are apt to do.
Usually, the role falls to teenage girls, Molly Dunn, who’s organized the Bethlehem Experience for five years, explains. Rolling Bay Presbyterian Church strives for authenticity in its drive-through nativity, from age-appropriate casting to banter. Which means, if you know somebody, like Jay the Wise Man, don’t expect him to say, “Hi,” back. Instead, he might pontificate on the immense distance he’s traveled to look for a newborn king, or exclaim, “My, what a peculiar chariot you have.”
Altogether, there are 70 people on set: nomads, shopkeepers, Roman soldiers. The costume-conscious become greeters or parking attendants, conscripted with camel cookies after a Sunday worship service. Congregants with bad knees post up at the fire pit. The shepherds (Mr. and Mrs. Shappard, really) donate sheep, a guy from St. Cecilia’s brings donkeys and chickens arrive like manna — reliably, from somewhere.
Over the years, the planning team, which begins its work every July, has fiddled with new schemes, like the time they distributed CDs for autonomous narration. This is how it went: The church made 40 CDs and gave them to Hondas and Toyotas lined up front, planning to collect the discs at the end and re-cycle them through, like a frugal auntie with gift wrap.
“But we had no idea how to time things,” Pastor Marty Shelton-Jenck laughed. “Cars are stopping and going slower and it doesn’t work timing-wise.”
Even more disasterly, people didn’t know how to operate their CD players. Completely unaware of what was happening, volunteers were collecting AC/DC albums and Frank Sinatra CDs and handing them out to incoming vehicles.
“And someone’s like, ‘Hey, wait! This is Frank Sinatra! Is he singing Christmas carols?’” Shelton-Jenck said.
The Presbyterians have since relied on the written word, multi-person scripts, instead of technology.
One thing that has remained unchanged since the beginning of Bethlehem is the church’s no-fee or offerings policy. People are so grateful, so amazed by the census-takers and magis and baby of the night — who is plastic only when the command to “be fruitful and multiply” has not been realized in time — that they whip out checkbooks, ready to drip dollars into a fund for whatever the church deems necessary.
But the Rolling Bay congregation doesn’t want any money. On principle, they offer the nativity gratis.
“We want to give this as a gift to the community,” Shelton-Jenck explained. “I think it has something to do with our faith. The whole story is a free story.”
Even so, the production costs the church a couple thousand, Shelton-Jenck said, and an incalculable number of human hours.
Saturdays in November, sweet, silver-haired men, who could be playing pinochle, instead drill massive Roman arches together while Dunn darts around like pre-flood Noah, corralling costumes and electrical cords. They’re so devoted to this performance that they’ll stick it out in rain or 16 degrees, ready to play their parts with pride while their audience enjoys 21st-century comforts, like seat warmers and electric heat.
With any Christian entity, there’s always the E-word explanation, the Matthew 28 decree, for unconditional kindness. And fair enough, if a church wants to evangelize to people who voluntarily show up. But the Bethlehem Experience isn’t a worship service, with liturgy or singing or preaching. The people who inspect the biblical village in 10- to 20- minute loops are generally already believers, none of whom, by the way, offer a membership boost to Rolling Bay Presbyterian. Indeed, the following Sunday, the absences are bordering Apocalypse, with everyone on the mend.
So why all the fuss? Why all the labor when you’re getting zero dollars, zero new members, zero saved souls?
The reason it’s worth it, to doll up like nomads and battle storms that rival King Herod in their manger-wrath, according to Pastor Shelton-Jencks and Dunn and multiple wise men, is because of the reactions. The please, please, please! of kids pleading with their parents to take them through again. The adults who rediscover wonder at the age of 58. The church that comes together.