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Bethlehem trek recreated in event
If you've ever wondered what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to make the six-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth of the Christ child, the Journey to Bethlehem in Ceres is a must-see event.

Tomorrow night is the debut of the 2010 "Journey to Bethlehem" experience, which gets underway at Grace Community Christian Church's sprawling rural church campus at 3754 Service Road. The venue will be repeated five more nights - on Dec. 3, 4, 9, 10, and 11.

This will be the 14th consecutive year Journey has been offered by the church. Word-of-mouth draws folks within a 100-mile radius as the event seeks to portray the power of the biblical event that is the bases for the Christian holiday of Christmas.

Pat Mason is organizing the event for the third year. It is precisely her experience with Journey as a visitor in 1997 - she was profoundly moved by the event - that prompted her to join Grace.

"We live in Redwood Road almost across from the church," explained Mason, "and we were going out to dinner and I saw the flashing signs and said, 'What do you think that is?' My husband said, 'Some church thing they're having down there.' The next night... I went through Journey and said to myself, 'This is the kind of church that I want to be involved with.' And the next year I was in church."

Mason said the event has a particular draw for children but many adults have also been moved by the simple message.

"In the manger we do have someone who gives the message of salvation and we try to present it very simply," said Mason.

Pulling off the event is no small task. Set building starts in late spring. There's also costume making which started Nov. 7. The cast begins practicing in the fall. It all comes together with the help of approximately 250 people as the church's largest ministry of the year.

The event requires a cast of approximately 120 persons. There's a also a behind-the scenes crew that feeds the cast, a crew that helps park cars, a coffee crew and those who man the entrance and exit tents. Members and non-members start signing up for jobs in October and men start wearing their beards.

"We have a good group of people and they've done it enough now ... they know their responsibility and get it done."

Journey has become the church's identity over the years, said Mason.

"It really is our identifier," said Mason. "We'll say, 'We're the Journey to Bethlehem people,' and people say, 'Oh, that church!"

At the conclusion of each annual run, Mason said there's a temptation to call an end to it because of the great energy that's required and the drain on the participants, not to mention the money.

Last year the event got rained out on two of its biggest nights - Fridays and Saturdays are busiest - and the church lost some free-will offering income.

The church nearly cancelled this year's event because of money - the production can easily run $10,000 a season - and waited out a two-week test to see funds would come in.

"Within two weeks there was the money and some of that money came from an individual who wasn't event a member of our church," said Mason.

A camel will not be included in the menagerie of animals because last year the cost ran $4,000 to transport it back and forth to Clovis every day. However, llamas, donkeys, horses, goats and geese are among the cast.

"We have a number of horses because we have about 20 some odd soldiers and they're on horseback," said Mason.

Gates open week nights at 4 p.m. with the "show" starting at 7 p.m. and gates close at 9 p.m. while the Saturday gates open at 4:30 p.m. and starts at 6 p.m. and closes at 9 p.m.

Mason said the hours-long wait in years past have been reduced to no more than 45 minutes, as a rule. Member and math professor Bob Blackburn helped calculate a more efficient cycling through of crowds.

Because it's not uncommon for crowds of 1,300 to show up in a single night, participants are urged to come early to reduce the wait and come bundled in blankets because the experience is all outdoors in chilly temperatures.

Parking is available at the church site at 3754 E. Service Road. For more information, call 531-1902.

Offered since 1997, Journey seeks to recreate the experience of the pilgrimage made by Mary and Joseph in the biblical account of the birth of Jesus, the Christ child. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem to participate in the census conducted by Roman officials. In those days, people had to trek to their towns of origin. At the time, Mary was pregnant with Jesus, whom would be born in a manger in Bethlehem. In Ceres, a guide takes small groups through the interactive stations, which are intended to be as realistic as possible. Mason said the market place, where the smells of cooking food and sounds of bartering customers and merchants are experienced, remains a popular aspect of Journey.

Pastor Wayne Unger and his wife Sue started the Ceres event, modeling the event after one started by his home pastor in St. Charles, Mo.