Jesus Christ, this is your life

Last Friday, two llamas, two goats, two sheep and about 50 Jesuses gathered in South Kitsap for what sounds like the setup for a tasteless Saturday Night Live sketch.

But rather than comedy, this was the first night of Port Orchard Church of Christ’s reverent re-enactment of the life of Jesus Christ.

Called “Celebrate Jesus,” the ninth installment of this annual event featured 17 scenes depicting Christ’s journey from birth to death and finally, ascension, all offered free to anyone who cares to drive or walk by them.

A half-hour before show time, cars began lining up outside the church on Carr Lane. Drivers were first greeted by the Three Wisemen and given programs explaining each scene, then offered cider and hot cocoa by robed women pushing a wooden cart.

Although there was plenty of activity outside, it was positively peaceful compared to inside the church, which was as chaotic as backstage before a Broadway show.

Tasked with making sure all 200 actors had a costume and each scene had enough alternates to cover the hour-long shifts in the cold, Tanya Howard could barely pause to take a breath during preparations.

A church member since 1986, Howard said the idea for Celebrate Jesus came out of a brainstorming session eight years ago.

“Since everyone seems to focus on the birth of Christ during the holidays, we thought it would be nice to show people the entire life of Christ,” Howard said, explaining that the notion came to so many people at once, she believed it came straight from God.

Howard said although the first year her church scrambled to put together 13 scenes in six weeks, now the event has become so large and so popular there is “no way our church could do it alone.”

She said this year several local congregations, including members of Grace Bible and First Christian churches and the Family Worship Center, helped out.

With about a minute to spare, Howard finally directs the last Jesus to his proper spot, leaving just enough time for youth and family pastor Tim Blair to send everyone out with a prayer.

“Remember, this isn’t about the lights, and this isn’t about Santa,” Blair said. “It’s about Jesus. People are here to hear the story of Jesus’ life. At the end of the night, you may be tired and don’t want to do it one more time, but everyone is here to see the story of Jesus, and everyone deserves your all.”

At 6 p.m., the first car heads past the church building and into the scenes, which are arranged in a large rectangle lining the parking lot. In case any drivers were still unsure about where they were, the church’s front lawn displayed 10-foot tall, lighted letters spelling “Celebrate Jesus,” which Acie Maxwell said have proved useful.

“The first year we had the searchlights going, some people came here thinking this was the opening of a new mall or something. Then they get stuck in line and have to go through the whole thing,” Maxwell said, who was dressed as the census taker for Caesar Augustus, while greeting and counting the number of guests in each car for the church at the same time.

Most of the people who drove up told Maxwell this was not their first time through and, in fact, they visit every year, as evidenced by the second car, which had small clothes draped over its headlights to dim the glare.

Not all drivers are not as practiced, though, Maxwell said. “Some people don’t even roll their windows down.”

Church member Mike Chavez said the first year the event ran only three nights, but it quickly grew so popular there wasn’t enough time for all the cars to travel through.

“Some scenes are quite long, taking two to three minutes to get through the dialogue, and it can take 30 to 40 minutes to drive through,” Chavez said, explaining that the event now runs for five days, taking up to 300 cars and dozens of walkers a night.

Each year, Chavez said, the production seems to grow more and more elaborate, but luckily the crew grows more experienced as well.

“Many of the scenes are set up on skids, so we can just wheel them away,” he said, explaining that even the elaborate nativity scene, which features a fake baby but live goats, llamas and plenty of hay, is very portable.

“It is propped up on a trailer, so we can just cart it away,” he said.

Although many of the scenes are easy to move, he said, they aren’t easy to store, and are often left in the field behind the church, where they are subjected to abuse from the weather and vandals.

In fact, this year one of the most realistic and labor-intensive scenes was damaged just before show time.

Called “Fishers of Men,” it depicts Simon and his brother Andrew fishing in a boat, and includes a man-made, 10-foot pond, just deep enough to float the two men in a rowboat.

But two days before opening night, vandals had poked holes in the plastic and drained the water, forcing crews to rebuild it.

And it’s not only vandals that wreak havoc. The “lake” has been known to freeze on cold nights, as well.

But Chavez said struggles with the sets are not necessarily the biggest problem with the production. Surprisingly, it is often more of a challenge finding enough people willing to represent Christ.

“Nobody wants to play Jesus. It’s a lot of pressure,” he said, explaining that the only times it is easy to find actors to play Jesus are for the scenes when he is very young.

“The youngsters, they line up to play Jesus,” he said.

Pastor Melvin Byrd said the scenes do change from year to year. Sometimes, Jesus does not help a lame man walk, but a blind man see.

“But the lame man, he’s very popular,” Byrd said.

New this year, Byrd said, was “The Woman at the Well,” which replaced a long scene depicting various temptations of Christ.

“There was a lot of dialogue, and it was very involved, so this year the actors asked for a reprieve,” he said.

But no matter which scenes are chosen, Byrd said the event always makes an impression.

“We had a young man write to us from Iraq and ask us to send him one of our calendars this year,” he said, explaining that the church takes pictures of each year’s shows and creates calendars to hand out to attendees the following year. “He went through the show last year, and really wanted another calendar. That’s really a testimony to what he had seen.”

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