By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
MARTINEZ, Calif. – For most Martinez residents, Thanksgiving Day marks the start of the holiday shopping season. For Bill Francis, it’s time to think of rebuilding Bethlehem.
Francis, a Martinez native, is the pastor of Morello Hills Christian Church, 1000 Morello Hills Drive, and since at least 1999, the church has had a Bethlehem display to tell residents and visitors about the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
“It started as a drive-through,” Francis said.
In those early years, people who wanted to see the church’s exhibit could stay in their cars and hear a recorded narration as they drove past five individual scenes – the angel Gabriel addressing Mary, the mother of Jesus; Joseph, Mary and a donkey traveling to Bethlehem; the stable in which Jesus was born; the three Wise Men traveling from the east to visit the family; and the shepherds who left their flocks to do the same.
Francis said the scenes, set up in the church parking lot, were inspired by those he saw at college.
Eventually, the church set up a refreshment stand at the end of the series of scenes.
About 15 years ago, Francis and his church decided to expand the displays. No longer would people simply drive or walk by.
Instead, they could walk the streets of the town where Mary and Joseph had traveled to comply with the order of Caesar Augustus that all under the rule of Rome must have their names recorded in a census.
That meant building a stable, since the Christmas story tells how the couple tried to find housing at the Bethlehem inns, but were only given space among livestock, since the first bed Jesus had was a feeding manger.
Other structures were assembled, too, to give the church parking lot the look of a village where visitors could sign their names on the census roll and participate in activities the church decided would be the types of things everyday residents of Bethlehem would be doing.
Since the church has been putting up the display for several years, it no longer has to start from scratch to prepare for the event. The sets are kept in storage until it’s time for parishioners to set them up, which they are doing on workdays as the time for Bethlehem to make its next appearance approaches.
Each year, the church tries to vary the activities, or introduce something new, Francis said. But each is based on the jobs or tasks that would have been done during the Biblical era.
At one spot, children can make simple pottery or make the unleavened bread that is described in the Old Testament account of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. At another spot, visitors can see and participate in some carpentry crafts or learn how to twist twine.
Both children and adults can learn how to play with a dreidel, the four-sided top that often is used during Hanukkah celebrations. Each side has a Hebrew letter that is part of the acronym of the phrase “A great miracle happened there,” in commemoration of the temple re-dedication that is celebrated in that Jewish holiday.
Each player spins the dreidel and gives or takes game pieces from the beginning pot, depending on which letter faces up when the top lands.
“We wanted period games, so we chose the dreidel,” Francis said.
Those visiting the Morello Hills Church Bethlehem village also will see other representations of the day. Soldiers who walk through the streets are a reminder that Bethlehem and its surrounding countryside was occupied by Rome.
Visitors can also see animals, such as the Jacob sheep whose parti-colored wool is like that described in the Old Testament book of Genesis in the story of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, who practiced selective animal husbandry to develop speckled sheep for his personal flock. This breed of sheep often has more than two horns – up to six.
During some of the church’s previous Bethlehem reenactments, visitors have seen miniature horses, llamas, goats and chickens.
The presence of the animals started early in the village re-creation, Francis said.
“I started making calls to the local 4-H,” he said. He reached Scott Compton, a Lafayette resident and 4-H Club liaison who owns Jacob sheep.
Through Compton, Francis has arranged to have the type of livestock that one might have seen 2,000 years ago in the small Palestinian town.
“It’s been harder lately,” Francis said. Some of those who owned the animals that made appearances at the display have sold their properties and found new homes for those animals. But between Compton and a woman who has a farm, this year’s edition of Bethlehem still will have animals, Francis said.
The highlight of each night of the Bethlehem display is the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph, often accompanied by a donkey as illustrated in many nativity paintings. As they arrive at Bethlehem, an inn keeper directs the couple to the only space available, a stall with a manger where the newborn baby will be placed.
“Most years, I record a new sound track,” Francis said, and he’s done that for this year’s production. “Then I get actors to read the parts.”
At Morello Hills, church volunteers portray the holy family, and each year the newborn Jesus is portrayed by an infant.
Three babies will be taking turns in the role of Jesus this year, and each is a girl, Francis said. That’s not unusual; in fact, one of the babies has two older sisters who have, in turn, played Jesus in this version of Bethlehem.
Francis said members have visited a larger Bethlehem production in Redwood City, and he said a smaller production may take place in Pittsburg. Years ago, a small church off Monument Boulevard in Concord had a live nativity.
But he doesn’t know of any closer reenactment of the birth of Jesus. “It’s a niche we can fill.”
Francis has only vague estimates of the public attendance to the church’s two-day display. “We’re not as good as the Roman government!” he joked. Even though visitors are encouraged to sign the “census” rolls, he said, “We don’t keep track.”
However, he said the replica village may get from 300 to 500 visitors each year, with those numbers based on the supplies the church provides for the activities and the amount of refreshments it serves.
He and other church staff and volunteers are busy helping visitors during the two-night event. And the visitors tell them they like the live display.
“People love to hang out,” he said. “They say it feels nice to be out and to have a community of people and fellowship. They appreciate having it.”
Each year, the little village gets new visitors, and they tell church members “they’re shocked by the ‘live-ness,’” Francis said. “It’s a real baby and real animals, and people enjoy seeing them.”
He said he believes the church has achieved its goal of having a holiday activity that welcomes anyone who stops by.
“I took a spin class at the Y, and people told me they have been coming for several years in a row and look forward to it,” Francis said. “That’s pretty cool.”
The Morello Hills Christian Church Visit to Bethlehem will be open from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18, and Saturday, Dec. 19, in the church parking lot at 1000 Morello Hills Drive, Martinez.