Bethlehem Event at English Lutheran Church

Dustin, Kirstin and baby Harold Lovell portray Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the Bethlehem Event at English Lutheran Church. Parishioners' infants rotate in the role, much like babies in movies are restricted from too much time in front of the camera.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

The heavy lifting to re-create Bethlehem inside English Lutheran Church in La Crosse has occurred during weekends since mid-October, but some of the detail work started in February — so the real labor could begin on time.

After all, what’s the point of having live actors scattered among the sights, sounds, activities and occupations at the time Christ was born without having a stable of babies to rotate into the starring role?

The congregation of 1,250 souls is used to seeing a rose on the altar when a member has a baby.

But when a bunch of roses were on the altar one Sunday in February, the Rev. Mark Solyst jokingly asked discipleship director Niki Pohnl what the occasion was.

When Pohnl cited the tradition of roses for babies, the senior pastor pressed toward the punchline, asking why there were so many.

“It’s for all of the babies that will be conceived in the next few weeks,” Solyst quoted Pohnl as saying, tipping off the novel approach to announcing that a batch of relative newborns would be needed for the church’s Bethlehem Event this weekend.

It was a lighthearted hint that parishioners needed to — ahem — get busy, Solyst said, chuckling.

The banter signals the humor that parishioners intermingle with their labor of love at the root of the Bethlehem Event, which English Lutheran stages once every four years. This is the year, and the event will take place from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

There’s no other way to describe the undertaking except that it is of biblical proportions, one that actually envelopes those who attend with the sights, sounds, sustenance and smells (the live chickens, goats and a donkey are neither housebroken nor church trained) of the period.

Tail wags dog — but that’s OK

“It’s the tail that wags the dog,” Solyst said.

The congregation is happy to provide the event to the public of all faiths, creeds and beliefs — or none — without charge, although free-will donations are accepted, he said.

“It’s a gift to the community,” he said. “Donations cover 15 to 20 percent (of the cost). We consider it our mission.”

Presenting the event demonstrates that “this is who we are and that we are centered on Jesus Christ,” Solyst said. “Also, it reveals the soul of the church — that Jesus didn’t come as a general in an army but the reality of a baby.

“It shows the character of a servant church … making a mission statement,” he said.

English Lutheran also uses the event to host Confirmation classes for about 10 other area Lutheran churches totaling 300 to 350 students on two Wednesdays before the event takes place, he said.

The classes help the confirmation candidates understand the atmosphere of Palestine and Jerusalem during the First century, he said.

“There was an expectation that something was going to happen — that God was going to do something,” he said. “It’s not that God just plopped down a baby in the ancient Middle East — there was an expectation.”

Palestine was a trouble spot even then, when individuals routinely “claimed to be the Messiah traveling with their guerrilla bands, and the Roman soldiers would kill them and that would be the end,” Solyst said.

“With Jesus, it wasn’t the end,” he said.

The event, which is expected to attract as many as 4,000 pilgrims during the two days, begins with a walk through displays portraying and explaining the way Bethlehem is today.

Members of Interfaith Partners for Peace and Justice in Palestine/Israel will be stationed at one point to explain the extreme challenges facing Palestinians living in Bethlehem and occupied territories.

President Donald Trump multiplied Mideast tensions last week with his unilateral decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. The move, over the objections of his own advisers and U.S. allies, continues to spark unrest in the Mideast.

Saying he was speaking as a citizen rather than a pastor, Solyst said, “I think moving of the capital makes peace more difficult.”

The status of Jerusalem is an element in the overall peace process — not a preliminary step, he said.

“What is the motive of our president?” Solyst said. “There is very little support from our adversaries or our allies.”

Event began in 1980 — in refrigerator boxes

When the Bethlehem Event began in 1980, it was an annual Sunday school activity that employed refrigerator boxes to create the town, Solyst said.

It shifted to a four-year schedule in 1994, and the set became more elaborate, with research guiding the construction of a house that a Jewish family might have lived in, with animals occupying part of the first floor and sleeping on the second, he said.

A 70-by-14-foot mural that features city streets, a wash house and a peek outside the city walls serves as the backdrop for the re-creation, which includes details such as a census-taker’s window, tax-collector station and a variety of shops for wares such as baskets, with a role-playing parishioner demonstrating the craft; clothing, with someone actually weaving fabric; a kitchen, where those on the tour can sample foods of the day; a synagogue, and other sights, as well as the cave where the real-live baby, on rotating shifts, rests under the watchful eyes of Mary and Joseph.

Roman soldiers and shepherds walk about, as do regular citizens, fishermen, sales people and people in occupations of all sorts, such as goldsmiths, perfumers, cheesemakers and bakers.

Many of the congregation members have scripts for their roles, he said, citing the example of the caretaker at the inn. If people ask whether he has seen a couple in which the woman is pregnant, as the three wise men or shepherds might have, he acknowledges that he kinda-sorta recalls such a couple, and they might be in a nearby cave.

“You get the idea of what it was like the night of Christ’s birth,” said Paul Sannerud, who is coordinator of the event.

400 to 500 members volunteer 2,000 hours

The event draws on the energy and talents of 400 to 500 church members, 130 to 150 of whom are in the cast, investing more than 2,000 volunteer hours, said Sannerud, in his third tour of coordinator duty.

It is a logistical challenge to wrangle scores of volunteers eager to help, including scheduling times and arranging food, and fit everyone into the various phases of the construction schedule, he said.

With thousands of pieces pulled from storage to reconstruct the buildings and scenery, “keeping it straight is a challenge,” said Sannerud, who also is a minister at Mount Zion Lutheran Church in Galesville who was a theatrical designer in a previous life.

“They have to be very careful taking it down … and we take a lot of pictures,” he said.

The builders put a new piece into one structure one season and couldn’t figure out where it went the next time out, partly because the whole shebang was reoriented when it was moved from its old site in one area of the church to an addition that was completed in 2013, he said.

Fortunately, church members and the architects included Bethlehem’s needs in the addition design, Sannerud said.

“We knew going in what we needed, so that became part of the factor,” he said.

The first task is putting down Masonite sheets as flooring, to protect the building’s marble floors, he said. Next, the volunteers put down a cloth the size of the entire room — the equivalent of a large cafeteria.

Sannerud confessed that it includes outlines of the buildings and other features to pinpoint their locations. Aha — the secret shortcut is revealed — putting the puzzle back together is sort of like painting by numbers.

After exiting the ancient city of David, travelers will find items for sale in the “Bethlehem Store” that are imported from artisans and retailers in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Gaza. Proceeds will go to Bright Stars of Bethlehem, a nonprofit organization that promotes outreach ministries of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.

People who attend the event might expect to spend as much as two hours for the wait and tour at peak times. During the wait, people are staged in the church sanctuary, where they can hear music and see videos.

At the end, they will find a baby in a manger — because English Lutheran plans Holy Families in advance.

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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