MANATEE — When Walk Through Bethlehem cast member Jean Adams came around the corner during a rehearsal and saw the actor playing Jesus Christ hanging on a cross, she gasped.
“I was speechless,” Adams said. “I don’t really know how to express what I felt. I guess it was, ‘There is our Salvation, right in front of me.’”
Members of Samoset First Baptist and Southside Baptist hope others who attend this year’s fourth Annual Walk Through Bethlehem collaborative effort will have just as strong a reaction.
The event, which recreates the little town of Bethlehem in detail down to colorful basket shops and the tax collector harassing the poor, is performed with continuous tours from 5 to 8:30 p.m. today and Sunday.
The event is being held on the church grounds at Samoset First Baptist Church, 3200 15th St. E.
Jesus will be played by Jim Holt, a member of Southside Baptist.
“What does it take to transform an ordinary modern day church grounds into a bustling, 2,000-year-old town on the night Jesus was born? Months of planning,” director Tammy Bass said.
The play demands many hours of labor to assemble the shops and stalls, several live animals and a very small baby to play Jesus at birth.
Bradenton’s Marge Roberts made most of the costumes.
In 2006, both churches had a vision to recreate Bethlehem as a way to bring back the true meaning of Christmas to the community, Bass said.
“After sharing their ideas with each other, it was decided that the two churches could accomplish more if they networked,” Bass said.
When guests come for the event, they will be assigned to a “guide” and they will walk through the city gate of Bethlehem.
They will pass through the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. They may feel nervous as their every move is watched by Roman soldiers on the grounds and stationed on rooftops, played by church members in realistic costumes.
“I grow my beard every year for the part,” said Roman soldier Jimmy Hall, who gets a charge out of seeing people’s expression when they see him.
“I’m really a pussycat, but you would never know it by looking at me in that outfit,” said Hall, a construction worker in modern times.
“We love it,” said Chad Overton, who plays a candle shop clerk along with Caroline Overton. Their friend, Blanche Edge, is Rachel, the town gossip.
Probably the most famous character of all is Roger Foskey’s performance as tax collector.
His booming, fearsome voice can be heard all through the grounds as he demands money from poor residents, who have come to Bethlehem to be counted for the census.
“God can wait, but Caesar cannot,” Foskey roars.
“I’m just vocal,” Foskey said. “They tell us to project our voices and I do that quite well.”
The 100 or so actors have to be sure to leave their cell phones, nail polish, wrist watches and eye glasses at home. Those items weren’t around 2,000 years ago.
“Saturday is the University of Florida football game versus Alabama and it’s going to be tough not getting updates,” Foskey said.
The guided tour takes approximately 35 minutes.
Among other Bethlehem events planned this year:
n “Braden River United Methodist Church has its “Annual Christmas Drive” 6-8 p.m. Dec. 11 -12 . Families can drive station to station and see and hear special Christmas messages from the comfort of their car. The church is at the corner of Caruso Road and Morgan Johnson Road.
n The First Assembly of God, 1820 53rd Ave. W., Bradenton, will present a drive-through live Nativity and living Christmas cards 7-8:30 p.m. Dec. 10-13. There will be colorful costumes, live animals and music. Admission is free, donations accepted. For more information, call 756-7331 or visit www.mygreatchurch.com.
n Roser Memorial Community Church has its Bethlehem Walk 6:30 p.m. Dec.. 12 at 512 Pine Ave., Anna Maria. The public is invited to sing and walk with the sheep, goats and other live animals, come in biblical costume or select one at the church, to hear the Christmas story at the stable, and to stay for cookies and hot chocolate. For more information, call 778-0414.
n Bethlehem the day Jesus was born will be presented at Dakin Dairy Farms. Visitors will be able to make their way through the corn maze to find the new baby Jesus 10 a.m.- 9 p.m. Dec. 12 and 19. Donation to benefit Esther’s Place at Harvest Tabernacle in Sarasota for desperate mothers with children seeking to be restored and re-established within the community. Go To www.DakinDairyFarms.com for more information.