God’s Christmas Gift’ comes to life

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 15, 2000

Lacey Boswell, dressed as an angel, peers down at a group walking through “God’s Christmas Gift” at First Baptist Church, 1607 Cherry St. (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

With the help of an artist’s vision, dozens of volunteers, a donkey and several sheep, a courtyard area outside First Baptist Church has been transformed for Christmas into an awe-inspiring depiction of the life of Christ.

The mammoth production, in the works for almost a year, debuted at 6:30 p.m. Thursday and drew 180 people by 8 p.m. The parking lot was packed.

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Visitors toured the courtyard in groups of 20, led by a church member representing Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet who predicted the birth of Jesus.

Visitors tour seven full-scale scenes, including the trip to Bethlehem on a live donkey, the Nativity and the wise men’s visit. At each stop, “Isaiah” explains the scene and reads relevant passages from the Bible.

The sets were all painstakingly designed, built and painted over the past several months by volunteers to the designs of Keith Matthews, a professional artist and a member of First Baptist.

“It was awesome,” said Cecile Martin, after braving frigid temperatures to see the tour.

Her daughter, Danielle, agreed.

“I liked it,” she said. “The angel was pretty.”

The Rev. Eric Thomas said he was awestruck watching the walls come up in the final stages of the project. When the first tour groups came through, Thomas was watching the performance from an upstairs window in the church.

“That was powerful,” he said. “Seeing the stone rolled away from the empty tomb, and the Ascension, it was inspiring.”

Inspiring or not, it was awfully cold outside, and at one point, groups were delayed so shepherds and wise men could come in for a cup of coffee.

Tom Hill, one of four Isaiahs who switched off leading the groups, said he was luckier than most because he had worn his cold-weather hunting gear beneath his robe.

The ones who had it worst were the angels and the man playing Christ in the Ascension scene: he was elevated on a deer stand disguised by a long, flowing robe, taking the full brunt of the wind.

The live animals were “amazingly cooperative,” Hill said, although at one point the donkey had to be dissuaded from eating the set.

Hill gave credit to Matthews and Mike Burnett for spearheading the effort, and Mary Carlton for designing the elaborate costumes.

Matthews, who is deaf, has said he wanted to use his artistic talent to help spread the church’s message at Christmas time.

“It was inspirational,” said Thelma Blackburn as she walked out of the walled-off courtyard and passed a man dressed as a Roman centurion. “This is just a wonderful thing for the church and community.”

Thomas said the production was intended to be a gift from First Baptist to the people of the community, and he hoped people from other churches and surrounding areas would come to see the message.

“The vast majority of the people here are not members of our church, as far as we can tell,” Thomas said. “The cost was pretty big this time, but we can just store the sets, and next time the cost will be much less. Hopefully, we can give this gift to the community every single year.”