'Bethlehem Experience' draws hundreds

Call it a Christmas miracle, or the work of a small army of volunteers, but Frenchtown School was transformed into a bustling classical era town Sunday as the Crossroads Community Church presented the "Bethlehem Experience."

Head Pastor Richard Joy said the event drew more than 400 people and was an attempt to present the Little Town of Bethlehem as it may have been during the time of Jesus' birth.

"Years ago we did a live Nativity and people still come and tell us how much they enjoyed it," Joy said. "So this year we decided to invite the community to something much bigger. And since our Sunday services are held at Frenchtown, that was a natural fit."

Church member Ed Gillespie said the event was designed to make people feel like they were actually entering into a First-Century Middle Eastern city.

"When they arrived at the school they were greeted by a Roman centurion, who proclaimed that they were ordered to register for the census of the empire," Gillespie said.

The centurion then opened a set of wooden gates, and revealed the town inside. Fruit, perfume and linen vendors hawked their merchandise, and townspeople dressed in period clothing went about their business. Visitors were free to immerse themselves in the town, after a census taker recorded their information.

After everyone had a chance to absorb the sights and sounds of the town, more costumed Crossroads members blew horns and the three wise men marched into the marketplace and read a prophesy. This was followed by an appearance of an angel on the school's balcony.

Joy said visitors followed the wise men and several shepherds from the school's lobby to a live Nativity at the back of the building, then were shown into the school's gym, where there were crafts for children and period games.

"We showed the children how to play dreidel [a Hebrew spinning top] and other types of games that we thought a child at that time might play," Joy said. "The history books are silent on children's games of the era, but everyone seemed to have fun."

The event also included a petting zoo and donkey rides, giving people the experience of just how uncomfortable travel was in that time.

Gillespie said the event took months of work by 120 church volunteers, a number that is more impressive considering the church has only about 140 members.

"It was basically a full effort by the entire church," Gillespie said. "Everyone pitched in, no matter what their skills were."

Volunteers with woodworking experience built storefronts and stored them in pieces in members' garages to be assembled Saturday and taken down after the event ended Sunday. Others made costumes or worked in the costume and makeup rooms. Gillespie himself drove a passenger van back and forth to the P.T. Barnum apartments in Bridgeport all day, transporting guests to Frenchtown.

Joy said the event had proven so popular that members planned to make it an annual event.

"The big sets are already built, so it will be easier next time," he said. "We also learned how to do things, so hopefully the experience will be even better next year."

Joy said all the hard work was worth it for the experience of having people thank him for providing a positive family outing.

"As people were leaving, more than one family came up and said thank you for giving them a chance to spend an afternoon in a positive, peaceful environment after such a tragic week," he said.