MANHATTAN – The Rev. Keith D. Leininger, senior pastor at Christ’s Mission Church in Manhattan, summed up the church’s “Travel to Bethlehem” event with this Bible verse.
“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark.” Luke 17: 26-27.
Every two to three years, Christ’s Mission Church re-creates the marketplace environment surrounding Jesus’ birth and invites the community to participate. The event began last weekend and will continue Saturday and Sunday.
Because it’s the church’s Christmas gift to the community, the entire interactive pageant is free.
In fact, no free-will offering will be taken, Leininger said.
“We’re just praying everybody experiences fully what Christmas is all about, and it is all about God’s love for us in Jesus,” Leininger said in a voice low with emotion. “That special gift, the main gift, is the first gift, which is Jesus himself.”
But first comes the aforementioned activity.
While waiting outside to enter “Bethlehem’s marketplace,” the crowds can view the livestock, Leininger said. Once inside, they will receive “Bethlehem denarii” to pay taxes, sample native food and barter with shopkeepers.
“Although nothing really is for sale, except for the food, and you can’t pay for that with your own money,” Leininger said. “They have to use the Bethlehem denarii, which we give them. It really is all free.”
People also will register for the census, witness an abridged Hebrew wedding and see bridesmaids dancing in the streets. They’ll hear the shepherd’s strange message, encounter the wise men and talk with townspeople.
All interaction is spontaneous, Leininger said. Nothing is programmed, just well-planned.
“Half the church grew beards for their roles,” he said.
The procession will lead into the church sanctuary and to the manger, where it will meet Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. At the manger, Leininger will give a short Gospel presentation, and attendees will hear a song that “captures the essence of God’s love.”
When Leininger is not delivering the message, he will be in costume and among the crowds, mingling with participants.
“This year, my son [Nathan Leininger] is taking the primary responsibility for making sure everything is in place,” Leininger said, “so I can interact with people much more.”
BY THE NUMBERS
• The entire church – 125 people – is involved.
• More than 80 people participate in costume, with at least 70 at any given time.
• About 35 to 40 donkeys, ponies, sheep and goats are imported to the event.
• Three babies will portray Jesus. Two have similar names and resemble twins – although they are not related. One baby Jesus is Leininger’s granddaughter.
• “Travel to Bethlehem” is held every two to three years.
• One church member implored Leininger to make it a church event, and he agreed.
• The church hosted the first “Travel to Bethlehem” in 1987. An estimated 200 to 300 people attended.
• In 2012, the event attracted more than 3,000 attendees.
• In 1989, Bethlehem’s “walls” were constructed from 100 cardboard mattress boxes.
• Later, one member at the church decided to construct the entrance and synagogue out of wood and Styrofoam. Today, all the city’s walls are made from wood and Styrofoam, fashioned to resemble stone.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Travel to Bethlehem”
WHEN: 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Christ’s Mission Church, 22811 S. Cedar Road, New Lenox
INFORMATION: www.christsmission.org, 815-485-2059