Countryside Christian Church will once again put on its “Drive-Thru Christmas” Dec. 15-17. Hundreds of volunteers recreate the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Fernando Salazar File/The Wichita Eagle
Countryside Christian Church will once again put on its “Drive-Thru Christmas” Dec. 15-17. Hundreds of volunteers recreate the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Fernando Salazar File/The Wichita Eagle

Religion

Celebrations of living nativities include sometimes-uncooperative live animals

By DAVID BURKE

Eagle correspondent

December 08, 2017 05:14 PM

If you want to stage a living nativity at your church, those who are veterans of the events in south central Kansas have one piece of advice.

Keep your eyes on the animals.

“The camels are fun,” said the Rev. Lito Solorio, lead pastor of Countryside Christian Church in Wichita. “We had a camel actually sit on one of our church members. He was OK.”

There’s no danger of spectators getting caught in line of camel, Solorio said, as participants in Countryside’s nativity must stay in their cars.

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Paige Nelson, director of youth ministries at East Heights United Methodist Church in Wichita, saw a llama take center stage last year.

“He was a little cantankerous,” Nelson said. “We’re not going to have the same animals this year, so we probably won’t have a llama. The llamas are always the ones that steal the show.”

Here’s a look at those and some other living nativities planned in the area:

‘A NIGHT IN BETHLEHEM’

6-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Dec. 7-8

First Christian Church, 1600 State St., Augusta

Entering its eighth year, the church’s presentation is a “re-creation of Bethlehem the night Jesus was born,” church member JoAnn Wallace said.

The church’s fellowship hall includes a food court, wool merchant, candlemaker and potter, among other artisans.

“The things we speculate there might have been in Bethlehem,” Wallace said.

When visitors go outside, they’ll see the shepherds, innkeeper and baby Jesus in a manger.

“It’s fun,” Wallace said. “The kids have a great time and it’s a good way to start off the celebration of Christmas.”

Admission is $1, or a nonperishable food item.

LIVING NATIVITY

6-8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10

East Heights United Methodist Church, 4407 E. Douglas, Wichita

Nelson said the living nativity has been going on for about 15 years, where all the characters are played by the church’s youth.

“It’s a way for them to be part of a Christmas pageant without being in the children’s Christmas pageant,” she said. “They’re the characters in the story.”

With free performances every half-hour, the living nativity is part of the College Hill Holiday Lights Trolley Tour.

Nelson said the youth look forward to the living nativity every year.

“They’re always super excited,” she said. “Sometimes when the weather’s not so good, they’re not.”

JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM

6:30-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 14-16

Rose Hill Christian Church, 314 N. Rose Hill Road

When the Rev. Jim McCutchen moved from Florida to Rose Hill five years ago, he wanted to bring with him a tradition employed in his previous church.

“It was a live, walk-through nativity where we had live animals, donkeys, animals, horses, chickens,” McCutchen said. “You name it, we had it.”

Shepherds guide visitors through the story of Christmas in about a 30-35 minute tour, he said. About 50 members of the congregation play various figures from the biblical story.

“They all have a script that they’ve actually memorized,” McCutchen said. “They’re dressed up in character.”

Once the free tour is over, guests are invited inside the church for hot chocolate, cookies and even meals – this year, ham and beans or turkey and noodles – as well as Santa Claus and elves.

“We have the whole sanctuary dressed up and lit like Christmas. They get the birth of Christ outside and Christmas inside,” McCutchen said. “We find that a lot of kids don’t get much Christmas in our area.”

As many as 1,200 people a year have come through the Rose Hill nativity, he said.

McCutchen said church members were skeptical before the first year.

“They couldn’t even envision it. I had the vision in my head and knew what I wanted to do,” he said with a laugh. “Because I was new, they were willing to do whatever I asked and give it a try. When they saw this worked well, we’ve done it ever since.”

DRIVE-THROUGH CHRISTMAS

6-9 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Dec. 15-17

Countryside Christian Church, 1919 S. Rock Road, Wichita

Solorio’s predecessor as pastor of Countryside Christian suggested the drive-through nativity five years ago, after seeing it work in other churches, Solorio said.

“We have a narrative that people get to play in their car,” he said. “We tell a modern-day Christmas story of a family reminiscing about what the Bible says about the meaning of Christmas and the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Probably the epic scene we have is taking them through Bethlehem. We have hundreds of volunteers doing everything from dancing Jewish dances to making pottery.

“We even have Roman centurions taking taxes and walking around checking up on people,” he added. “Eventually we have a live animal display with Jesus and our actors there.”

Donations and canned food will be accepted to benefit the 184th Family Support Organization of McConnell Air Force Base, Solorio said.

“It’s been a cool little ministry they’ve been a part of every year,” he said, adding many families with a parent deployed overseas are able to attend.

Countryside Christian’s event, which draws as many as 1,000 cars a year from as far away as Emporia, includes about 300 church volunteers each night, Solorio said.

“It takes a village,” he said.

Movie star and Wichita native Kirstie Alley put up her beloved holiday scene at her house on East Douglas in December 2016. (Denise Neil/The Wichita Eagle)

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