Kingsburg church stages first Spanish “Bethlehem Experience”

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Four USMB congregations join in Christmas outreach

By Laura Brown, The Kingsburg Recorder

This article was first printed in the Dec. 17, 2014 issue of “The Kingsburg (Calif.) Recorder” and is reprinted with permission.

What could be more important than Christmas at this time of year?

For the faithful organizing the Kingsburg MB Church’s “Bethlehem Experience,” the answer becomes evident the closer and closer visitors got to the manger where infant Cristian Jacob Cruz was held by Jessica Gallegos.

“You live it! You’re in the scene,” said Agua Viva pastor Alfred Foth who greeted visitors as they finished the walk and entered a large banquet room. The congregation has presented the walk-through experience on alternating years since 1995, but this is the first time the group has done an evening of Spanish-language tours.

“There’s nothing like hearing it in their own language,” Foth said.

This year the Kingsburg church members were joined by other congregations to host the re-enactment. Visitors first stopped at a census booth and a tax collector before guides walked them through the wings of the church’s facilities that were transformed into a pottery shop, bakery, herb shop and clothier’s stand.

All the while, the church members—as various characters—shared historical aspects of each trade and the message that an important birth was soon to take place. Then, as visitors enter the synagogue, prophecies were read from the scrolls regarding a Messiah’s birth. Finally, a stable where the newborn Savior lay was visited before attendees wound their way back to 2014.

Members of the Hermanos Menonitas (Mennonite Brethren) Agua Viva congregation, which meets at the same site as the English-speaking Kingsburg congregation, as well as volunteers from three area Mennonite Brethren churches—Templo de Oracion in Traver, Iglesia Hermanos Menonita West Park in Fresno and La Paz MB Church in Orosi—and a group from Rosarito, Mexico, collaborated to stage the event.

Unlike a typical Nativity production, visitors are incorporated into the experience as tour guides walk them through the staged city of Bethlehem.

“It’s a difficult thing to rehearse,” said director Kathy Wiest. Rather than learn specific lines, church members rehearsed their roles and helped set up the shops, animal stables and the synagogue.

“We don’t have any professional actors. Their gifts of being able to recreate the scene are not always useable in a church setting. This is a wonderful way to express their worship through the work of their hands,” Wiest said of the performers.

Juan Romero, playing the part of the census taker that night, had traveled from Rosarito, Mexico, to take part in the event. He said that since he’s taken part in Bible skits before at their church, dressing up in character wasn’t an entirely new experience for him.

“This helps people recall why Jesus was born and see how things were back at that time,” he said.

Church member Darren Duerksen said that seeing the expression on visitors’ faces made the effort worthwhile. Playing a mandolin, the closest thing he had to a lute, Duerksen helped add to the ambience of the event.

“I love seeing the kids’, but also the adults’ faces as they get a small taste of the expectation that must have been at the time of Jesus’ birth.”

Brenda Deason added to the atmosphere of the night as she portrayed a fruit and vegetable vendor. She said the event gave participants and visitors alike a chance to focus on the spiritual meaning behind the event.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in Santa, but for me, when we do ‘Bethlehem,’ it feels like it’s really Christmas. People take their kids to the mall to see Santa, but this way they can take their kids to Bethlehem.”

Aside from the booths and various stations, children also got a chance to see goats, donkeys, sheep and chickens. Rebekah Lehrman brought her goat Chica, a 4-H project, to the event to make the grounds seem more like the biblical setting.

“It’s fun to walk around and if people want, they can pet the goat,” said Lehrman. “Kids pet the goat a lot. But this is the night the Christ child is born it’s an exciting time for all of us.”

Portraying the part of Dorcas in the clothier’s shop, Maribel Gonzalez said sharing a bit of history about the use of fabrics at the time was only one aspect of her part. The more important was sharing the news of the importance of the birth that’s taken place.

“The people are talking about a rumor that this newborn will be the Messiah,” said Gonzalez. “Since the Spanish congregation here is not that big, everyone was willing to help. It’s nice to have this here in Kingsburg to give (Spanish-speaking visitors) a real sense of what Christmas is in their own language.”

Note: Kingsburg MB Church and Iglesia Agua Viva capped off their Bethlehem Experience partnership with a joint Spanish-English bilingual service Sunday morning, Dec. 21. “It was a taste of heaven,” says Kathy Heinrichs Wiest, who directed Bethlehem Experience.

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