By Rich Brown
RACINE, Mo. —
On a hillside just outside the tiny community of Racine, donkeys kick up their heels, sheep graze undisturbed by the throngs of people in their midst and a camel stares blankly at the many activities taking place around it.
As difficult as it may be to conjure up such an image outside a petting zoo, it actually took place in the rural setting of Racine Christian Church three weeks ago.
It was all part of RCC's 11th annual "Journey to Bethlehem" -- the church's Christmas gift to the Four-State Area, which is a reenactment of the events leading up to the birth of Christ.
This year's event was not only a success but a record-breaking success, drawing 6,720 visitors in three days, including the most ever one-day total of 2,693.
That is quite a step up from the estimated turnout of about 2,000 people in the church's first endeavor in 2001, started by youth ministers Joel and Joy Dyer.
The Dyers brought the idea for the event to Racine from their Oklahoma City church, which had been successful there.
Although there has been a similar reenactment at a Pittsburg, Kan., church, in the past, Darrin Brower, music director at RCC, said this is currently the only performance he knows of in the Four-State Area.
"There are churches all over that do this," he said. "In fact, there is one in St. Charles that I went to that has been doing it for 21 years."
In many instances, the event has become a family tradition, as visitors travel back in time to get a glimpse of first-century Israel and experience the original Christmas story: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
The outdoor walk-through, interactive drama, set in turn-of-the-millennium Judea, takes place about 100 yards away from the Racine church. Prior to the journey, guests are treated to about a half-hour of Christmas music, dancing and storytelling, similar to what would have taken place in the days of Jesus.
Personal guides greet visitors and take them in small groups on a week-long journey, capsulated in 45 minutes, down a path running from the village of Nazareth to Bethlehem to enroll and be counted in the census.
More than 20 tents are set up along the way, featuring typical items of that day. Vendors sell such things as raw fish and dates, according to Scott Hall, who served as co-director of the drama along with his wife, Judy.
As visitors travel along the path, they are encouraged to participate by interacting with some of the 200-plus cast of characters, such as shepherds, Roman soldiers, local residents and even radical revolutionaries. Of course, the animals are everywhere and available for petting.
At one stop, the travelers could see and hear a group of maidens dancing around a fire and singing Jewish songs of the day.
The journey, which takes place on a 1/4-mile mulched trail illuminated by torches, concludes at a stable, the birthplace of the baby Jesus.
"The stable keeper wraps up everything and gives everyone the true meaning of Christmas," Brower said.
In addition to the cast, Judy Hall estimated that at least 100 other volunteers worked behind the scenes.
Casting and setting up the set for JTB began in August, with rehearsals beginning the first of November. The event is always planned for the first weekend following Thanksgiving.
"This is a very expensive venture but we do not charge for any of it," Brower said. "The reason we don't charge is that we want this to be our gift to the Four-State Area and to let people know the true meaning of Christmas."
Brower added that there are indeed those who don't know the true meaning and if this production can reveal that to just one person and shed light on what Jesus' birth means to the world, then it all becomes a worthwhile ministry. And, bottom line, that's what it is all about.
By the way, the only paid actor in the event was the camel, which was rented from a rancher in Wyandotte, Okla.
Anyone wishing more information may visit Facebook at www.facebook.com/racine.christian or call the church at 417-776-2280.