Though the wait can be a bit long, “Journey to Bethlehem,” a free, drive-thru experience of the Christmas story by Bethany Church of Fresno, California, is well worth it. Once inside the area, visitors drive through the busy marketplace of Jerusalem and into the small town of Bethlehem. The live event includes townspeople of all ages dressed the part and working outside their “houses,” angels dancing in the fields, Roman guards collecting taxes and even some animals wandering around the scene.
The journey takes a little over an hour, depending on the line to get in. As each car enters, occupants are handed a CD with the narration of the story along with some “coins” with which to pay taxes. The narration begins before entering Jerusalem and takes visitors along the gravel path through the first century towns. The journey continues through the church’s large undeveloped property, and once you leave Bethlehem, ends at an optional reception at the main church lawn. Here there are refreshments to enjoy around campfires, and people waiting to meet visitors and answer questions.
This Christmas season will be the fourth year for Bethany’s “Journey to Bethlehem.” The live drive-thru nativity event started in 2014 and was open for three consecutive nights. The trial run was a hit, with a turnout of 2,700 guests. The event has become a tradition and each year draws in more and more people from the community. Because of its popularity, it has also been extended to four consecutive nights.
“Journey to Bethlehem” is the brainchild of Bethany Church member Laurie Franz and she leads the event each year. She says that seeing the church come together behind this vision of hers to ultimately share the true meaning of Christmas with the community is her favorite part. Franz said that presenting the story of the first Christmas in this tangible way makes it come to life, and it makes people think a little deeper on the meaning behind the story.
Putting on “Journey to Bethlehem” is truly a church effort. More than 100 church volunteers of all ages help in whatever capacity they can. Volunteer positions include set builders, costume makers, greeters, kitchen helpers, traffic controllers and actors.
Preparations for the event begin anywhere from five months to one month before, depending on the task. Work on costumes begins during the summer, sets start going up in November and the actors have one or two rehearsals beginning a few weeks prior to the opening night for “Bethlehem”. As the years go on, the preparation and set up process gets easier, as the experience becomes familiar. Now, there are certain costumes and props that get reused each year.
“The birth account of Jesus is increasingly unknown in our culture, and we have a great privilege to share the story in beauty and color,” says Brian Wiebe, senior pastor. “Journey to Bethlehem…is our gift to the community, using simple traditions to share the message of the gospel”.
Whether visitors have heard the story of Jesus’ birth a thousand times or for the very first time, Bethany Church hopes that people attending and experiencing this event will be reminded of both the gospel message and the true meaning of Christmas.
“Journey to Bethlehem” will be open this year December 19-22, 2017, from 6:00-8:30 p.m. at Bethany Church located at 9161 North Maple Avenue in Fresno.
View the “Journey to Bethlehem” video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbnQ2jP56ks&feature=youtu.be
Holly (Reimer) Goble graduated from Tabor College with a communications degree in May 2017. She then moved from the Kansas plains to her hometown of Fresno, California, taking her fiancé with her. Holly and Justin Goble were married in November 2017 and are now living in Clovis, California and are attending Bethany Church, where she is a member.