People from the area have been enjoying the Journey to Bethlehem interactive tour for a decade now, getting immersed in scenes from the time of Jesus Christ’s birth.
The event is taking place this weekend, and more than 2,000 are expected to make the journey. On Friday, the first night, 600 people came through the doors. The event requires an army of volunteers, from the actors to the volunteers that put together the event behind the scenes.
The 20-minute tour, at the Hermiston Seventh-Day Adventist Church, at 855 West Highland Avenue, takes visitors back more than 2,000 years. It depicts the passage of travelers from Nazareth, who arrive in Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. Travelers made the 90-mile journey, which took four or five days, when the census was being taken, and to pay the tax collector. After leaving the tax collector’s office, the travelers hear of the birth of Jesus Christ, and complete their journey at the manger where Mary and Joseph are cradling a newborn Jesus. The tour ends with the guides reminding travelers of Jesus’ life, and asking them to remember its significance in modern times.
Setting the Scene
Those roles, as well as the nearly 90 others on the tour, are filled by volunteers ranging in age from 10 to 80-plus, with people playing every part from lepers outside Bethlehem to vendors in the city, to a set of belligerent Roman guards.
“The roles are all volunteer, and they’re all filled out of willingness,” said cast director Sheila Botti, who has directed the show for all of its 10 years. “It’s people that just believe what the message behind ‘Journey’ is.”
Botti said the cast director usually offers the same role to the person who played it the previous year, and otherwise they send out a request for a person to fill that role. There are no auditions for the roles, she said.
Some actors have taken it upon themselves to lend their own personality to their roles. Phil Rand, who has been a part of the tour since it started a decade ago, fondly recalled his character progression.
“I started as a grumpy Roman guard, and now I’m a grumpy innkeeper,” he said. “So I’ve been promoted.”
He said yearly visitors now anticipate his ornery performance. “People come to see me snarl and growl,” he said. But he has mellowed. “I have not made a child cry in years,” he said.
Rand enjoys seeing people he knows on the tours, especially from his days working as a teacher in Hermiston and Umatilla. He said for him, this is the true start of the Christmas season.
“No (event) has more significance than this,” he said. “People can buy all the Christmas presents they want, but this is the true meaning.”
For some of the younger performers, it’s a chance to understand what they learn in church a little better.
“This is my first year,” said 12 year-old Aaliyah Giles, who was playing the role of a perfume vendor in Bethlehem. “I like getting to see friends, and getting to share the Bible,” she said.
Ayden Randall, 12, has been performing with the event for two years, and this year serves as the tax collector’s assistant, who loudly and threateningly introduces travelers to the tax collector, and collects the money.
“I really like it, especially since I can be over-dramatic,” he said. “I can catch them by surprise.”
Building a City
Botti estimated that behind the scenes, at least 35 volunteers help the show come together. The crew includes people who keep the torches and fires lit, throughout the tour, the musicians that provide entertainment to those waiting to go on the tour, and the greeters and people serving refreshments.
The steering team includes a logistics coordinator, a decorating coordinator, a construction manager, and a costuming director.
And people will show up to help without being asked, Botti said.
Dale Rincker, who was also acting as a Roman guard in the tax collector’s office, was busy sweeping an hour before the show began. He said he enjoyed seeing it come together each year.
“Once it gets dark and the torches get lighted — I won’t use the word magic, but reminds people of the true meaning of Christmas. It’s pretty cool.”
The set, which consists of several 12 to 15 foot-high walls, is set up two weeks before the event behind the church, and dismantled and stored the rest of the year.
Inside, Jo Ann Rincker was helping villagers and shepherds find the finishing touches for their costumes, helping them tie or drape cloth around their heads. The costume room was filled with muslin cloth, helmets and belts, and clothing that looked like it may have been in fashion 2,000 years ago.
“We pride ourselves on authenticity,” Botti said. “For example, with shoes. There’s no modern wear. When going through the village, (performers) will not be allowed to have their cell phones. Even with the props we use.”
Volunteers also let the church use live animals for the tour, including live chickens, five goats, a pony and a donkey.
Botti said that other than for the guides, there is not a lot of rehearsal for the event. But there is always some element of change.
“With props, decor,” she said. “The animals are unpredictable. Or the groups might be different”
The actors come from different corners of the community, and many are from denominations other than the Seventh-Day Adventist church.
“We like the camaraderie of different churches,” Botti said. There are performers from the Nazarene Church, the Assembly of God, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, among others.
A half an hour before Saturday’s tours began, Botti gathered the group of actors in the middle of the “town.” They went over points from the previous evening, prayed for some church members who had been injured in a car accident, and discussed important things to remember for that night’s performance.
“Whether it’s the first group or the last group that goes in there, they deserve your best foot forward,” Botti said. “I know you’ll get tired or thirsty. But every single person is here to witness the night Jesus was born.”