A journey 2,000 years in the making

MATTHEWS – Visitors to Matthews United Methodist Church will soon take a step 2,000 years back in time, as the campus hosts its annual Walk Through Bethlehem event.

Matthews UMC’s Walk Through Bethlehem will feature hundreds of volunteer actors re-enacting New Testament-era Bethlehem for the community to enjoy on Dec. 7.

Matthews UMC’s Walk Through Bethlehem will feature hundreds of volunteer actors re-enacting New Testament-era Bethlehem for the community to enjoy on Dec. 7.

Walk Through Bethlehem is an interactive experience that gives visitors a chance to “walk the streets of Bethlehem” as they appeared around the time of the birth of Jesus. The event, on Dec. 7, a Saturday, from 2 to 8 p.m., will be free and open to the public at the church, 801 S. Trade St.

The church has hosted Walk Through Bethlehem every year for the past 22 years, and the event continues to draw in more and more visitors each year, event organizer Jean Marshman said, adding the church estimates more than 6,000 people visited Walk Through Bethlehem last year.

“It’s gotten bigger as the years go by … I think when the Christmas season comes, many people would really like to bring their children to be involved in something like this. It becomes a tradition to bring their family here,” Marshman said.

Walk Through Bethlehem will feature nearly 400 actors – all volunteers – who will take on the roles of townspeople, Roman soldiers, beggars, a priest and students in a synagogue. The church also uses live animals – chickens, goats, donkeys, cows and even a camel – for the event, which come from Noah’s Landing petting zoo.

The walk begins at the Roman census table, which mimics the actual census taken during the time when Jesus was born. Visitors “sign in” at the census table by providing a couple very basic things about themselves and are then let in and allowed to walk the streets of Bethlehem – a path that winds both inside and outside the church.

The walk culminates with the famous inn, where Mary and Joseph were turned away and redirected to a nearby stable. Volunteers also will take on the roles of the innkeeper and the Holy Family.

“There’s a stable there that we’ve built, with the Holy Family and some angels singing,” Marshman said. “People can enjoy the singing of the angels.”

Visitors will be given “shekels” during their trip to the marketplace, which they can use to “purchase” various items like bread, cheese and fruits the people of Bethlehem ate during the New Testament era. They’ll also receive an ornament at the end of the walk they can take home and hang on their own Christmas tree.

Marshman said the event takes about six to seven months to put together. A lot of the costumes and the set pieces are stored and reused from year to year, but new ones also are made to replace old, aging pieces. Marshman said an additional 300 volunteers help with behind-the-scenes aspects of the show, such as set building, sewing, working in the kitchen, helping host the event and more – making for a total of 700 volunteers.

“It does take a lot of people to pull this together, but it is so beautiful between the costumes and marketplace,” Marshman said.

The most challenging aspect of the Walk Through Bethlehem, Marshman said, is the enormous task of putting the event together, along with the 700 volunteers pitching in. But that’s also the most fun part, she added.

“As Christians (with a) giving spirit, there’s really no hard part to it,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a joy to work with the people in the church. I’ve met so many people doing this.”

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