Participating in a live Nativity is nothing short of a surreal experience, the Rev. Kevin Steele said.
There are camels, sheep and donkeys. There is a baby, sometimes real, sometimes not, lying in a manager.
A few feet away, a crowd stands sipping hot cider in the church parking lot.
If all goes well, hundreds of people will come to experience a glimpse of what it must have been like the night Jesus Christ was born, said Steele, the pastor of National Hills Baptist Church on Washington Road in Augusta. His is one of several churches in the area to hold live Nativity scenes throughout the Advent season.
“We see this as an opportunity to give back to the community and point them to the real reason for Christmas, which is that Jesus Christ came to the earth,” Steele said.
Nativities take weeks, if not months, of preparation and planning.
At National Hills, more than 70 church members participate – sewing costumes, building sets and welcoming visitors with free doughnuts and cider.
The church rents animals from a farm in Salley, S.C.
“You usually want to order ahead of time,” Steele said. One time, “we were looking for a camel and ended up getting a llama.”
Live Nativity sets are usually broken down and reassembled year after year. In Harlem, organizers start in early November, said Joy McKettrick, the church council chairwoman of Harlem United Methodist Church.
The church partners with its neighbor, Harlem Baptist Church, for a joint Walk Through Bethlehem program each year.
It’s like a live-action Nativity scene, McKettrick said.
About 500 to 600 people come to interact with the shopkeepers and shepherds that line the path toward the church’s mock village of Bethlehem.
“The most amazing thing happened our very first year. We had a lady walk up and ask, ‘What’s this all about?’” McKettrick said.
“She really didn’t know who Jesus was. That’s why we do this. It’s our gift to the world. We want everybody to know who Jesus is.”
Participating in the live Nativity year after year is a humbling experience, McKettrick added.
“People go through, and they’re trying to find a place to stay, just like Joseph and Mary did,” she said.
“You see the Bible story in a new light.”
That’s part of what makes it a great teaching opportunity for children, said Joy Johnson-Brown, youth adviser at Belle-Terrace Presbyterian Church off Golden Camp Road in Augusta. For the third year, 18 of the church’s children acted in a live Nativity scene outside the church.
“They have fun, because there are heaters and marshmallows and hot dogs, but they’re learning something real at the same time,” she said.
This was the first year Southwind Fellowship Church in Aiken held its live Nativity-type program.
A Night in Bethlehem was held indoors for families, complete with crafts, a marketplace where children could make jewelry and ornaments, and a bakery and fruit stand.
“It’s a good experience for our church. We have to work together to make it happen,” said the Rev. Darrell Morgan. “When you work together, you come together.”
The mock village also included a “temple,” where those seeking prayer could gather or talk with someone from the church.
“I tell our members, ‘This is a chance for you to practice sharing your faith,’” Morgan said.
“We might only do this one night of the year, but the experience becomes part of who you are. You’re not working from a script anymore. You’re sharing the testimony of God’s work in your life, and that’s powerful.”