By Garrett Dvorkin
Herald Staff Writer
After entering through the towering stone gate, sights of villagers bartering for goods and blacksmiths smelting iron were mixed with smells of animals, fresh bread and campfires.
These are just some of the features included in this year’s installment of Grace Fellowship Church’s live nativity. The nativity, the church’s 13th production, is available for residents to drive through tonight from 6 to 9. The event is free of charge, with visitors asked to enter the event via McKinney Street.
While it is advertised as a live nativity, Pastor Philip Taylor thinks of it more as “a functioning village, a living tour of biblical Bethlehem.”
The idea of creating the village comes from biblical events. The story of Christmas comes from the time of the Roman Empire. It is said that emperor Julius Caesar issued a decree that all romans must travel home to pay a tax. Mary and Joseph were traveling home, and because all Romans were traveling, many inns were full.
Grace Fellowship Church has brought Bethlehem to life for area residents to experience first-hand. Before driving through Bethlehem, roman guards ask drivers, “How many are entering Bethlehem?” Typically, all patrons in the car are given a gold coin. At the end of the nativity, drivers are approached by the tax collector who demands tribute. While the coins are being skipped this year due to COVID-19 protocols, the church is still providing residents with the opportunity to be like Mary and Joseph traveling through Bethlehem.
As it has always been a drive-thru event, “little has changed from last year,” said Taylor. “We were perfectly setup for the pandemic. Just as we’ve always done it.”
In 2007, after another area church had decided to stop doing a live nativity, Grace Fellowship Church made the decision to carry on the tradition. What started out as just a stable, inn and a few props has turned into so much more.
Pastor Taylor was surprised the first year when 400 people showed up. Now the event draws over 2,000 visitors to the area. Since 2007, Taylor and the shifts of volunteers have added every year to the nativity as it has evolved into what it is today.
Taylor said that visitors this year can expect a “functioning market full of live actors as townspeople,” Roman soldiers on horseback patrolling the city, alpacas, ducks, camels and other live animals are on sight. To sum up the experience, Taylor says it allows Titusville to experience “the sights, smells and ambiance of Bethlehem.”
Taylor mentioned that the church could not pull off the event without the help of volunteers. All November Taylor said he had a team of 20-25 volunteers working day in and day out to prepare. The prep work does not take into account the 160 volunteers that are present to make Bethlehem come alive by creating a city out of a parking lot. The volunteers work in two teams in 30-minute shifts all night Friday and Saturday.
One volunteer that is braving the elements is Rabbi John Stevenson. He has volunteered in the live nativity for seven or eight years. When asked what got him to first volunteer, Stevenson said, “it was the historical authenticity that I really liked.” Stevenson appreciated that this wasn’t just another nativity, but something much more.
“They have a lot of working knowledge that they put into this,” said Stevenson. “Every part of a biblical town is accounted for, the market, the inn, the blacksmith, they have everything.”
While the nativity might only be two nights, Stevenson says that just seeing the church brings back countless good memories. “Every time I pass that parking lot I smile,” said Stevenson. “It could be 90 degrees in July and I still think about all the fun we have here.”
With all the cancellations and challenges that have surrounded the year 2020, Taylor is happy to spread some Christmas spirit around Titusville. With all the holiday traditions, Taylor knows that the true meaning of Christmas can sometime be lost. He believes though, that this nativity event can teach residents a lot.
“It reminds us of what Christmas is really about,” said Taylor. “It reminds us about all that God has done for us.”
While pandemic regulations have made having events more difficult, Taylor thought that this event was more important than ever. “This year, I think this event is really a gift to our community,” said Taylor.
Dvorkin can be reached by email at Gdvorkin@titusvilleherald.com.