Church in Lakewood Ranch will transform into ‘A Night in Bethlehem’

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Standing at 6-foot-7, the Rev. Jeff Gross of Living Lord Lutheran Church in Lakewood Ranch is an imposing figure.

Just imagine him as a Roman census taker at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth.

Gross put on the costume of a census taker Sunday as the church continued to prepare for its first-ever, “A Night in Bethlehem,” an interactive Christmas experience that aims to turn the church grounds into the city of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago on the night that Jesus Christ was born.

The free event is scheduled 6:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday at the church, located near the intersection of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and State Road 70, at 11107 Palmbrush Trail.

“The church responded to the idea of doing ‘Bethlehem’ as fast as I did,” Gross said Sunday after services. “Everyone got involved immediately and it crossed all generations. Everyone had ideas, and good ones. People are lending their talents. For instance, the women who quilt are now making costumes.”

Close to 75 church members volunteered to either build, paint, decorate or operate a bakery, a wine shop, or a jewelry shop, said Sue Tomasso, the church’s education chairwoman, who encouraged the church’s youth director, Kristen Hitchcock, who hatched the idea.

Other members agreed to become actors for the first-time production.

“When people come they will feel like they are back in Bethlehem, but unlike some depictions, which take people on guided tours, ours will be interactive,” Tomasso said. “So, you will get free food samples from the bakery, talk to the angels sharing the Good News, converse with shepherds and, with a bag of plastic coins we give you when you come, help out the beggars you will find.”

Everyone will be dressed as authentic as possible, said Gross, but some modern-day conveniences may sneak in. Gross said he will be wearing his eyeglasses.

“When Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea in ‘The Ten Commandments,’ he was wearing a wristwatch,” Gross said.

The miraculous birth of baby Jesus is what this event is all about, Gross said.

“We want families to know that our Bethlehem will be Christ-centered,” he said. “Part of that will be a nativity that families can see. But more than that, everyone in Bethlehem at this moment in time knows about baby Jesus’ arrival and what it means and they will be sharing their excitement, which is the real meaning of Christmas.”

Gross and others say this will be the first time that a Bethlehem recreation, which is an annual event for a handful of churches in Manatee County, has ever been done in Lakewood Ranch.

Families, who can dress modern or Biblical, are urged to bring their small children, who will be able to do arts and crafts at the crafts store and sample food items that the baby Jesus himself may have enjoyed as he got older, Tomasso said.

Tomasso and Hitchcock have no idea how many will come to their inaugural event.

“In our wildest dreams, we would be thrilled with a hundred,” Tomasso said.

But she and other church members are kidding the Hunsader family, some of whom attend Living Lord Lutheran.

“Kristen likes to say that, in years to come, people will start thinking about ‘Bethlehem’ right after the Hunsader Pumpkin Festival,” Tomasso said.

Living Lord Lutheran is Lakewood Ranch’s first church, formed 15 years ago. The production is ranking right up there with the most exciting things the church has ever done, Gross said.

“We feel our church is the best kept secret of the area,” Tomasso said. “Bethlehem is our way to let people know we are here and extend our goodwill to them. There’s always room for new friends.”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.