Creatures give comfort and joy

12/20/2006

By Woody Woodrick

Advocate Editor

HERNANDO — Camels are usually associated with deserts half-way around the world, not rural north Mississippi.

 

However, for the past three years Baker’s Chapel United Methodist Church, located in DeSoto County, has used camels and other animals in its living nativity scene to reach out to the community.

 

This year’s event, held Dec. 8-10, featured three white camels, two donkeys and six sheep. Camels aren’t known for their friendly personalities, but Baker’s Chapel has had no problems.

 

“These are some of the best camels I’ve ever seen,” said the Rev. Don Sampley, pastor at Baker’s Chapel. “They’re a lot better than those in Israel they have for people to ride. They’re easy to lead around. The guys who bring them dress in costume and handle the camels and animals.”

 

While the animals might be the draw, the living nativity scene is really about God answering prayers.

 

Brenda Scott had a rough year in 2002. In July her mother died of cancer. Five days later, her husband also died of cancer.

 

“In September I was thinking about Christmas and lonely,” she said. “I had always loved living nativity scenes, but had never seen one with animals. The Lord put in on my heart to have one here.”

Scott talked to a co-worker who had attended a living nativity scene which used live animals at Germantown (Tenn.) Baptist Church. Scott called that church and got the name of Dave Hale of 5-H Ranch in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Hale furnishes animals for all kinds of events, including movies. Scott discovered creating a nativity tableau would involve some cost.

 

 Eventually, Scott and her sister-in-law Rebecca Thompson approached the Rev. Harold Manning, who was serving Baker’s Chapel at the time, and mentioned the idea. Immediately, three folks standing nearby volunteered to help. Gerald Cooper offered to make the manger, Margie Mayer would publicize the event and Stephanie Williams would make costumes.

 

“God put everything into place so we could do this,” Scott said.

 

Average worship attendance at Baker’s Chapel is 67, and most of the church members are involved in the living nativity in some way. They volunteer to stand outside on cold December nights to portray Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men and angels. They bake cookies, brownies and other treats to serve guests. They decorate the fellowship hall. They direct traffic. They canvass the surrounding area putting out door hangers advertising the event. “My church is so amazing because they are so eager to do it,” Scott said.

 

Cooper and Kenneth Thompson each year build the small, wooden structure that houses the manger. Another member donates a travel trailer which sits behind the scene as a place for the actors to get warm. Still another cuts evergreen trees to serve as a screen for the behind-the-scenes work.

 

Scott said about 25-30 people serve as actors. They work in 45-minute, 13-person shifts, four shifts a night. Children eagerly volunteer to be angels. Teens serve as shepherds. Scott said volunteers willingly step in when a problem arises, such as coming up short a wise man or other character. Originally, an infant played the part of baby Jesus, but a doll was used this year because, well, the church didn’t have enough babies.

 

“The whole church looks forward to it,” Sampley said. “This is one of our outreach programs to the community. Folks can just drive through or stop and have fellowship.”

 

Sampley said about 2,500 people visited the event in 2004 and estimated the 2005 attendance at 3,500. This year’s event drew an estimated 1,700 guests. Sampley said it appears most of this year’s visitors came to the living nativity for the first time.

 

While the animals are interesting to see, the goal is to spread the Gospel of Christmas. “We call it our Christmas present to the community,” Scott said. “It’s not about entertainment. It’s about giving people an idea of what the first Christmas was like.

 

“It gives people who aren’t going to church a way to feel welcome in a non-threatening environment.”

 

As Scott and Thompson began to organize the first living nativity, money was an issue. The cost of having the animals for three days is $4,500. The church, which usually has 50-60 in worship each week, does not budget for the event.

 

“If God wants us to do this, he will give us what we need to do it,” Scott said.

 

So, once — and only once — a year, Scott asks the congregation for contributions. “Not only do we reach our goal, but we go over it,” she said.

Sometimes gifts come from non-members who have visited the nativity or heard about it. This year, the church received a $500 welcoming grant from the Mississippi Conference Communications Commission to help with expenses. Scott said she never worries about having the money or supplies needed for the event. God always provides, she said.

 

Scott said she wants to continue the nativity scene as long as she hears God’s call for the event. She said she can see how God has used the event.

 

“This makes Christmas mean so much more,” she said. “It brings the season alive. I hope everybody who comes feels that Jesus is here and is just as alive as he was 2,000 years ago.”

 

Scott said the nativity helped her get past that terrible time four years ago.

“It healed me,” she said. “It helped me get through my sadness.”

 

That’s living Christmas.