At Easter, these men play a role that is timeless, unifying and entirely individual. They are the players who passionately portray Jesus.
Matt Williams, St. Petersburg
In the last song of Word of Life Fellowship's Easter service, the congregation's clapping rattles the windows. In the choir, momentum is building.
He reigns forever and ever more
Jesus walks down the aisle with his arms raised.
He reigns forever and ever more
He reaches the pulpit, turns to the congregation and the choir nearly screams.
All Hail King Jesus!
This Jesus is a 16-year-old named Matt Williams. His smile says he is comfortable at the center of it all.
His confidence is striking. He knows the congregation chose him to be a role model.
Williams will tell you straight that he has a great GPA at Gibbs High School, that other students know he will stay focused on school and sports. When some kids pressure him to skip football practice and smoke marijuana, he turns them down in a way that makes them feel uncool.
"I'm always the quiet kid who won't get in trouble," he says. "In my life I can be bold before people and I can walk with my head up because I have salvation.
"I have power over people. Not in the sense that I can rule them, but just that I know I'm favored. I have a reason to smile. I am saved."
• • •
Americo Perez, Wimauma
The next time things get heated, Americo Perez knows he has to remember Jesus as fast as he can.
"When Jesus was forgiving people while they were hurting him? Killing him? To forgive someone while they are actually doing something to you? You have to have huge courage. You have to be someone who is not just like a mortal," said Perez, 22. "Pride is really something I need to start working on. Jesus says when someone punches you, you should give your left cheek too instead of punching back. That's hard to do."
Now that all the kids at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wimauma are calling him Jesus, the pressure's on. "All the little kids are saying 'Oh, here comes Jesus' and 'Hey Jesus, what's up?' It changes how I should be in my life outside church."
He's preparing himself to be that role model the next time conflict arises. "I try to think that what this person is doing to me is nothing compared to what Jesus went through. He let it go, so I can let it go."
• • •
Brandon Arnold, Hudson
Brandon Arnold knows everyone doesn't agree with Word of Life Gospel Productions' graphic portrayal of the crucifixion. To him, the importance of the message outweighs the controversy.
"As graphically as we portray it, it doesn't even come close. The Bible says he wasn't even recognizable as a man. We forget the pain and the suffering he endured on our behalf."
For Arnold, 26, it is the single most important lesson of the play.
"Since being part of this production, taking communion has changed for me. Now I remember that it wasn't easy. It wasn't just a little piece of bread and some grape juice he gave on my behalf. His body was literally torn apart. I want our portrayal of that moment to send the message, 'Hey, don't forget.' "
• • •
Tyler Ferguson, Largo
Tyler Ferguson leads worship at his church and school, plays a mean guitar and is the hands-down choice to play Jesus at Indian Rocks Christian School's Easter production. "But I can't really grow a beard yet," he said. "No, not really."
He's 16. His one-corner smile, early Beatles haircut and last awkward pimples are pure teenage charm. But he's done just being a good kid. He's ready to be a good man.
"I really like the verse in 1 Timothy 4:12. It says don't let anyone look down on you because you are young. Sometimes people will be like, 'No they can't play in the church because they're too young, or they can't go on that mission trip because they are too young.' We can do everything the adults can do. Just maybe with some limitations."
• • •
Mike Graham, Wauchula
Mike Graham has played Jesus for longer than Jesus was Jesus. Christ died at 33, nearly 10 years fewer than Graham has been playing him every Easter.
Graham, who reluctantly admits to being 57, felt a clear calling at an early age — to produce a play so realistic it would transport an audience back 2,000 years. Help them see how real his sacrifice was.
He wrote The Story of Jesus and put together a skit with some high school students. Every year since he has dreamed it bigger and bigger. Today his city of Jerusalem stretches across a rodeo arena in Wauchula. Christ is baptized in a flowing Jordan River. His city is filled with 225 people and 150 animals — sheep, ducks, camels, donkeys, horses, cattle, oxen and Roman soldiers on horseback. Everyone in the play is spray-painted a dark flesh tone to look Middle Eastern. Hair must be dark, and men must wear beards. Tragically, a 57-year-old Jesus begins to strain credibility.
"Well, you can't play Jesus forever," he said. "It's a part of my life I feel like I was placed here to do. But I have a few more years to play at least certain roles in the play."
And after that? He just finished a script for Moses, who lived to be 120.
Times staff writer Lane DeGregory contributed to this report.