Behind the Hermiston Seventh-day Adventist Church, dozens of people moved through the darkness this weekend by the light of fires. Guards terrorized peasants, the tax collector gathered his percentage and vendors tried to sell chickens, perfumes and jewelry to passers-by.

The pungent smell of a dozen campfires drifted across to the church parking lot, where traffic controllers directed traffic with a precision worthy of a theme park, ready to give visitors a “Journey to Bethlehem.”

The third annual event is a combination of weeks of planning, hours of set-up and preparation and a desire to share a story with the community in a memorable way. Dozens of cast members don period costumes, memorize lines and bring elaborate sets to life with props, foods and live animals.

Now in its third year, the three-night performance brought in record crowds this year. About 460 people traveled the journey each night on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, 525 people had already gone through the event as of 7 p.m. — halfway through the allotted time.

“Last year we had only 800 come through the whole time,” volunteer greeter Stan Anderson said Sunday. “They set a goal of 1,500 people this year, and I think they’re going to make it. People really seem to enjoy this. One lady came through three times last night, and she’s back tonight. It’s a blast.”

Last year, poor weather and cold temperatures kept many people from enjoying the outdoor event, Anderson said.

“Tonight, the weather’s really perfect,” Anderson said. “The last couple nights it’s been cold. I wouldn’t doubt it if we have 700 people come through tonight.”

To monitor attendance counts and keep tour groups small, when visitors entered the church, they were assigned a color-coded group number and escorted to the sanctuary to listen to holiday music. Sunday evening, the pews nearly filled with waiting families, watching a projector on the wall for their number. When the magic number blinked on the screen, the group moved through a hallway, listened to a brief introduction and then met with the “head of their family” who would escort them to Bethlehem.

One of those leaders was Blake Engelhart, who was in his second year of guiding “families” through the tour.

“It’s been going great,” Engelhart said. “We’re having a really busy night. I’ve gone through four times already, so tonight I’ll probably do seven or eight (tours).”

Engelhart said he chose to be a guide instead of one of the scene actors.

“I think being a guide is the best job because you get to see everything and you only have to say your lines seven times,” he said. “Everyone else has to say their lines 40 or 50 times.”

After the tour, groups were treated to hot chocolate, cider and a variety of cookies. With the success of the 2010 event, volunteers said they expect “Journey to Bethlehem” to continue next year.

“If anyone hasn’t come through, they need to put it on their calendar for next year,” Engelhart said. “There’s nothing like it.”

    

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