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Bethlehem, Nativity re-created elaborately

As Brandon has grown, its rural character has given way to more modern sights. It's not as easy these days to see cows grazing in a pasture or horses galloping on a trail.

Still, you can still see a camel every December.

At Kings Avenue Baptist Church, a camel and other animals have become part of a Christmas tradition. Walk Through Bethlehem, an interactive re-creation of the biblical city and the Nativity, is bigger and better than ever in its 20th year, organizers say.

But not too big.

"What we were doing is adding a little bit more every year, but pretty soon the city started getting pretty big and it's supposed to be a little city," pastor Chuck Richard said. "We decided to keep it the same size, but I think we are doing some other things better."

Those who visit get to see an impressive collection of actors and animals who re-create the scenes surrounding Christ's birth. From children to adults, more than 100 church members assume roles, dressing in costumes that reflect the period. Men dressed as Roman soldiers leave a distinct impression.

Camels, donkeys, goats and sheep are among the animals involved.

"I'm 57 years old and I've seen a lot of Christmas programs," Richard said, "but I've never seen anything that takes your entire body into the experience like this does.

"You feel like you're there. You can see it. You can hear it. You can touch it. You can smell it. You become Jewish for 30 minutes and experience what it might have been 2,000 years ago when Mary and Joseph came into the city."

Richard added that the manger scene often is the most moving for visitors. A live baby is used in the scene.

"Some people start crying," Richard said. "Others want to sing the Hallelujah chorus."

Visitors congregate in the church auditorium and enjoy music and entertainment while waiting for the guided tour through the city. Different church choirs sing, and Hebrew dancers from Brandon's Beth Tehila Congregation are scheduled to perform along with a youth group from the Joshua Arts Center.

There is no admission charge. Snacks are available for a nominal fee.

An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people "tour" the city each year during the four-day event. Richard said they have an exact number because visitors in Bethlehem go through the census just as Mary and Joseph did.

The event's popularity took off when someone came up with the idea of putting the camel at the front of the church so people could see it while traveling down Kings Avenue, publicity chairman Jim Bird said.

Another boost occurred in 2004, but it didn't start the right way. Vandals trashed the display, but the resulting news coverage bolstered support and helped the church draw more visitors.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at 226-3406 or hooper@sptimes.com.

If you go

Walk Through Bethlehem

Where: Kings Avenue Baptist Church, 2602 S Kings Ave., Brandon

When: 6:30 to 10 tonight, 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Cost: free

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