A live nativity scene of the real Christmas Story will unfold in the crisp night air for three performances this weekend.
Bethlehem — which features local artisans, live animals along with free admission, hot cocoa, coffee and cookies — runs Friday through Sunday, 5:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Sylvester Farm, 1792 Kingman Road. The production is a 45-minute walking tour with carts available for those with special needs.
The event is sponsored by the Ottawa Bible Church in cooperation with 17 area churches and many volunteers.
“It is an amazing community effort,” Teri Seeger, Ottawa Bible Church secretary, said. “It started with a few people and an idea. It grew and grew. We have several churches involved in it. It takes between 100-150 people to put this on. It takes a lot of people to pull this off and we are a small church. It is nice to have that community [spirit]. It is awesome. People call up and ask ‘how can we help.’”
Elizabeth Rhodes, production manager, said attendees come away with a different feeling about Christmas.
“We want them to hear what it is we live for every day — that we are so passionate about — that Jesus is the reason we celebrate Christmas,” Rhodes said. “We should be excited about Jesus. We should be carrying the excitement about Christmas. You see a change in the world when Christmas hits. People are different around the Christmas season than they are throughout the rest of the year. That should not be for us Christians. We should be so passionate about Christmas and Easter all year long. When it comes to Bethlehem, we are so passionate about it. Being excited about living eternity in Heaven. I want that for everyone else.”
This is the 15th year of the Bethlehem Project and organizers added more to the story.
“We decided to tell the rest of the story,” Seeger said. “We did not want to just stop at the stable, even though that is a magical moment. They meet the Kings and they are trying to find the Savior. They talk to them a little bit. We go into the life of Christ. John The Baptist has a long script, and ends with the resurrection. It tells the rest of the story.”
The experience is a real-life depiction of what it was like when Jesus was born with live actors portraying Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus and many others.
“The whole idea is the present, the real meaning of Christmas to people,” Seeger said. “The baby Jesus — who might be crying or asleep — that is the most magical moment. At the Marketplace, we ask the kids, ‘did you find the baby Jesus.’ They will tell you, ‘we saw him.’ They are so excited. That is fun for me to see the excitement in their eyes.”
Rhodes said those portraying the characters take their parts seriously.
“They have a diverse take on that script,” she said. “It so cool to see all the different thoughts and angles. All of them read straight from the Scriptures before they dig into that script. My volunteers are so dedicated to the true story from start to finish — from Jesus’ birth to Jesus’ resurrection. Without one, you don’t have the other. They are so passionate about the truth of it.”
Seeger and Rhodes said the impact of the Bethlehem tour can’t always be measured right away.
“We don’t just reach the guests that come through, we reach the volunteers too,” Rhodes said. “There are some awe moments. We want the Gospel message given. You can be saved because of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. That is the core right there. You watch rowdy teenagers leave the tax collector station and take the tour. They get to the stable and they walk out of there so quiet.”
Rhodes said the Ottawa Bible Church pastor’s daughter told how she was touched nine years ago playing the part of Mary along with her husband as Joseph and young son as Jesus.
“They had a group of middle schoolers and one of them said ‘I think we should be kneeling,’” Rhodes said. “They knelt down in the stable for that part of the story. Nine years later, that is a moving story.”
Rhodes said last year they had 18 people saved the night they toured the Bethlehem Project
“That is huge,” Rhodes said. “What about the others that we don’t know how we touched their lives. How the Holy Spirit is living in their lives? My true passion for this project is you can get people — who won’t darken the door of a church — to come out to a farm to see a Christmas story.”
Seeger said Bethlehem is on the first weekend of December each year for a reason.
“We start the Christmas season on the right foot,” she said. “Let’s get the focus on where it should be. People make this a tradition and they bring their families because they want to start the Christmas season in that light.”
This version of the project is to minister to the community by publicly presenting an interactive living nativity that accurately portrays the Biblical significance of the birth and life of Jesus Christ, organizers said.
“To God be the glory,” Seeger said. “It could not happen without him making it work out along the way.”
Seeger said the event is free and donations are accepted with the proceeds being split between The LifeCare Center and Hope House.
The event is outside in the cool air with luminaries lighting the route to each station, which gives it a surreal feel, according to organizers.
The first production of the Bethlehem Project was conducted in 2003 around the pond at Norm and Ellen Mast’s farm. It moved to Ottawa’s GreatLife golf course (2010-11) and found a home at the Russ and Sandy Sylvester’s farm since 2012.
“We are very grateful to them,” Seeger said. “It is very generous of them to do that. They have the buildings. We don’t have to build anything.”
Seeger said the hospitality house is a great way to end the evening after taking the tour. Free hot cocoa, coffee and homemade cookies along with music will greet the attendees.
“Different churches or individuals will provide music while people are visiting and warming up,” Seeger said. “It is exciting to be a part of a community event.”