Local church celebrates 25 years of Christmas card to community

Published 9:00 am Sunday, December 2, 2018

For 25 years, baby Jesus hasn’t aged a day.

Instead, this time every year, he’s born anew amidst the cows, goats, camels and sheep standing outside New Life Christian Church with over 100 volunteers on display and behind the scenes checking off another year of the Drive-Thru Live Nativity.

According to Kendall Langseth, a New Life Christian Church elder and member of the original committee for the first live Nativity 25 years ago, a typical year has 1,200 to 1,500 people attend (a number slightly dependent on weather). People will bus in from surrounding communities to see the display.

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Though the first year didn’t have that many visitors, “it didn’t take very long — I mean, it was within a couple years where that’s where we were at,” he said.

The first year — the first few years — also didn’t have a live camel. There were the “typical” stable animals, Langseth said, some of which — sheep, goats, cattle — are provided by congregation members.

“When we started, we talked about getting a camel … but we didn’t have that resource available to us,” Langseth said.

Volunteers make up the choir of angels, one of several 2015 live Nativity scenes.

So they started with a Christmas llama instead until they found an Austin-area camel owner who also chips in some donkeys and sheep.

When it started, Langseth, his wife and another couple had seen a live Nativity elsewhere and thought it was something they should bring to this community. At the time it started, the live Nativity at New Life Christian Church filled a need, pastor Vern Harris said.

And for many families, it seems that is still true.

“We hear every year that ‘This has now become a part of our Christmas tradition,’” Harris said.

And for the church, that’s true, too. It starts the first Sunday of every October, when a church member will announce, “Gentlemen, start your beards.”

Harris said most church members take part in the Nativity in some way. There are many options: In addition to staffing the scenes, volunteers help in costuming, feeding other volunteers, constructing sets, wrangling animals, leading devotions, working with sound and light systems, guiding cars through the Nativity, blacking out church windows so no light leaks through outside and putting cardboard on the floor so nothing gets tracked into the building. This year, to celebrate 25 years, volunteers will also hand out Christmas devotionals at the end, Harris said.

Those volunteers come not only from New Life Christian Church, but also from other area faith communities, including The Vineyard Church and the Spanish-speaking church that worships inside New Life’s building.

“Language isn’t an issue when you’re a silent figure in pose,” Harris said.

“There are a lot of little aspects,” Harris said.

The costumes were all hand-sewn or handmade by congregation members.

“What’s unique about that is because it’s all outside, we made sure that the costume were designed so that they could wear their winter clothing underneath that,” Langseth said.

Since its inception, the number of scenes has grown and the sets have been reconstructed so assembling them takes one day rather than several. Each scene has its own prep area inside the church and designated doors to exit and enter, Langseth said. The characters rotate in shifts — 20 minutes on-scene, 20 minutes off.

Harris said the evening is an opportunity for fellowship among volunteers, who share stories about excited or emotionally moved visitors of all ages.

“You hear the joy in (their) voice as they’re going through,” Langseth said. “… And then we come inside and share those stories, you know, right away, and people just, you know, we’re uplifted because of the responses from the community and responses from the people that it helps remind us as well how important Christmas is.”

All 25 years of this effort is for one main reason: so people remember the birth of Jesus.

“We saw Christmas was getting so secular,” Langseth said. “We forgot the reason for the season.”

By continuing with the nativity, Harris said the church is wishing a blessed Christmas to Albert Lea and its surrounding communities.

“It has been said our live Nativity is our Christmas card to our community,” Harris said.

The Drive-Thru live nativity will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 7 and 8 at New Life Christian Church.

Take me, please

Who: New Life Christian Church

What: Drive-Thru Live Nativity

When: 7 to 9 p.m. Friday and Dec. 8

Where: New Life Christian Church, 1075 SE Marshall St., Albert Lea

How much: Free to the public. Those who wish can donate to the Salvation Army with the red bucket set up on-site.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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