Living Christmas Story at Bethany draws crowd to encounter Jesus

By the Rev. Narcie Jeter

SUMMERVILLE—Bethany United Methodist Church’s drive-through story of Jesus' life is celebrating 25 years.

Even during the height of COVID-19, last year more than 4,000 people drove through witnessing the miracle of Jesus.

Each year, cars and trams drive through stations such as the census tables, seeing Gabriel give the message to Mary, traveling Mary and Joseph on a donkey, the angel delivering the good news of great joy to the shepherds, Herod’s Court and the wise men, the blacksmith, the carpenter, the basket weavers, the women at the well and the potter. They encounter a bustling Bethlehem village with Roman guards making their presence known, meet the innkeeper and his wife, and as they round the corner, hear Christmas carols and see the manger.

It also includes the cross and the empty tomb. People are heard remarking about the bright, big star and the long-awaited Messiah.

“Telling the story of Jesus and his birth and life and getting the message out to all of the people who come through has been a wonderful thing; it really has,” said Ruth Ann Ivey, the deacon who brought the Living Christmas Story to Bethany. “I connected with Living Christmas Story through the Christian Educators Fellowship. The year before we started, I took a group to Columbia to see a Methodist church there that was doing it. The following year we started getting things ready to do it here. That was in 1996. I feel like it’s been a blessing to so many people.”

Travis Wheeler, co-chair of the Living Christmas Story said it has lasted for 25 years because of the reach of the ministry.

“Those of us who have driven through it when our children were little remember the conversations that it led to and hope that our version of LCS leads others to the same conversations,” Wheeler said. “We start the initial setup five weeks before the date. We work every Saturday for about four to five hours leading up to it. The week before, a lot of us take off a couple of days of work or all week to finish up the setup. Many church members show up the week before to help spread pine straw, hay, distribute live plants, put props in the correct place and help put the finishing touches on LCS.

“It is definitely a churchwide project.”

Wheeler noted it is also a significant monetary investment for the church, but it is seen as an outreach ministry to the local community. It takes about 250 people per night to put it on with a cast of about 200 people and another 50 handling costumes, food, taking care of animals, coordination, casting directors, traffic control and trams.

“One thing I love about LCS is that our kids see how much time and effort it takes to put on the production,” Wheeler said. “It has led to many conversations about Jesus, the church and having a servant's heart, not to mention talking about the specifics of the story. I hope it brings people as much joy and as many blessings as it has me and our family.”

UPtv's "Small Town Christmas" included Living Christmas Story on its show about Summerville, which aired on Christmas Eve at 9 p.m.

Many people look forward to Living Christmas Story every year as it gives them a stress-free break from the hecticness of the holidays.

Matt Bates has experience serving five years as coordinator of Living Christmas Story.

“On a personal note, for me it goes back to the first time I drove through the Living Christmas Story before I was a member at Bethany,” Bates said. “I was really, really, impressed with the production quality and the sets and the actors. But what really hit me was the empty tomb at the end. Seeing the full circle from Jesus’s birth all the way through the ultimate sacrifice brought me to tears. It diminishes all the typical worries and anxieties that come with the holidays.”

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