The gymnasium in the Family Life Center of First Baptist Church in Hopewell is currently unrecognizable. There are no signs of a facility to house basketball games, fellowship dinners, or sports camps. The space has been totally transformed into the ancient town of Bethlehem where over 2000 years ago all citizens, including Mary and Joseph, were required by the Roman government to come to be counted in the census.
Teams of church members spent over a month transforming the gym and the rear area of the building into Bethlehem. Shops are built and decorated using authentic details from that time. Costumes are distributed and rehearsals scheduled for cast members who provide an interactive experience with visitors as they take the excursion through Bethlehem. Pastor Jeff Raymond, who plays a Roman soldier, says the true blessing of Walk Through Bethlehem to him is the way it pulls all of the church members together as a team. “Folks who didn’t really know each other have become friends through working in our Bethlehem production! It’s one of the few special programs that involve everyone from young children to the ‘young at heart’. Even those who don’t feel they are able to participate in the cast are put in a variety of jobs behind the scenes to make the Walk a success!” he said. “This is our Christmas gift to the community, and we are grateful for the number of people who have told us what a blessing they receive from it each year!”
This is the seventh year for the production, which generally attracts over 3,000 visitors during its three-day run. It re-creates what Bethlehem might have been like the night that Jesus was born. Visitors are escorted to the city where they will be immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of ancient Bethlehem. They will encounter Roman soldiers, beggars, shopkeepers, live animals, shepherds, and angels before finding the Baby Jesus in the manger. “This is really a family event,” Pastor Raymond said. “Young children may not understand everything that’s going on in Bethlehem, but they easily identify with the other children taking part in the cast. They also love the live animals and are fascinated when they get to the quiet stable and find the Baby Jesus.”
While waiting to be escorted in small groups to Bethlehem, visitors will enjoy Christmas music in the sanctuary performed by a number of talented individuals and groups from the church and local area. They will also be given a brief orientation about what life was like in Bethlehem around the time of Christ’s birth. After the “walk,” they’ll enjoy refreshments in the church’s Fellowship Hall. This year’s production will be held at the following times: Friday, Dec. 2: 6 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 3: 4 p.m. – 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 4: 4 p.m. – 7 p.m.
The event is free to the public but the church asks that in the spirit of giving this season, visitors bring a canned food item, which will be donated to the Hopewell Food Pantry. First Baptist is located at 401 N. Second Avenue, Hopewell (2 blocks east of John Randolph Medical Center at the corner of Rt. 10 & Second Ave.). For more information and to view photos from previous years, visit the church’s website at www.fbchopewell.org  or call the office at 458-2752.