More Than 1,500 Cars Line Up for Journey to Bethlehem Live Nativity
by James Coulter
Mary and Joseph traveled more than 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. While people visiting the “Journey to Bethlehem” live nativity at First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland did not travel that far, the queue for cars to pass through the live performance felt that long for many attendees.
More than 1,500 cars passed through “Journey to Bethlehem” hosted Sunday evening at First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland. The live nativity was hosted by nearly 90 volunteers, including 40 actors, 30 support staff, and 10 to 15 choir members.
Vehicles lined the road along Lake Hollingsworth Drive and into the church parking lot. There, they could drive by a live performance of the church choir, with displays by the local Boys Scout troop. The nativity itself contained several scenes from the Biblical story performed by live actors, from Mary being visited by an angel to the wise men traveling to visit baby Jesus in the stable.
The entire experience, true to its name, was created to make participants feel as though they were taking the same “Journey to Bethlehem” that Mary and Joseph traveled, complete with being greeted by Roman centurions at the gates of the city and being told by inn keepers that there was no vacancy at the inn.
“Patrons are themselves turned away from the inn by guards the same way Mary and Joeseph would have been greeted as they entered Bethlehem seeking to fulfill their obligation with the Roman census at the time,” said Rev. Zac McGowen. “So they come for a sense of connection, and families come out so the kids can hear in a fun way the story of Christmas. And they do not have to come out of their car. That way, they can stay in pajamas if they want to and have a fun evening.”
Rev. McGowen has served as the outreach pastor for eight years, and he has overseen Journey to Bethlehem ever since. The live nativity has been hosted for nearly 14 years. The only exception was last year, when the holiday event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Journey to Bethlehem initally started as a simple nativity scene. It has since grown to a full-scale performance with nearly 100 participants, including assistance from the local police department and Florida Southern College. The success has been to the overwhelming support from the community, which drives in droves to visit it.
“There is a lot of entertaining Christmas programs in our community, but this gets to the heart of the Christmas story which is the birth of Jesus Christ and the salvation that he brings the sacrifice leaving the glory of heaven and coming to Earth, and people need to hear that story,” Rev. McGowen said.
The best part comes at the very end, where volunteers offer to pray with people in need of prayer. Rev. McGowen mentions how many attendees have approached with stories of cancer diagnosis and broken relationships with families, and how he and his volunteers have prayed over them for wholeness and healing.
“We realize it takes a long time to get through the queue, to get there, but it is not dissimilar from the business that Mary and Joseph would have experienced coming into Bethlehem as well, so we feel like it is appropriate that it may frustrate people, but Mary and Joesph had to travel some 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to go to a very overcrowded city, so it is appropriate that people have to wait and deal with travelers.”