Residents prepare to take Journey to Bethlehem this weekend at First Baptist Church Content Exchange

Just as a story grows more and more with each telling, the Troy First Baptist Journey to Bethlehem has become ever more elaborate each year since the first. 

The idea for the Journey came ahead of Christmas time six years ago, when Diane Campbell’s friend, Heather Lindsay, had a big dream. Lindsay had attended a Journey to Bethlehem, and wanted to put one on locally in Troy. 

“She said, ‘Diane look, I went to this thing, can we do it?’” Campbell said. “And I go, ‘oh Heather, it’s September already…we can’t get it together.’”

Campbell said she went home after that and told her husband what Lindsay had proposed.

“‘Heather thinks we can do a [Journey to Bethlehem],’” Campbell recalled saying, adding her husband’s response was, “you can.” 

The wild ride started from there, as the members of First Baptist began toiling on the production to get it ready in time. 

“That first year we didn’t have a market, so it was pretty bare-bones,” Campbell said, adding that they had “no idea what to expect” that first time through.

“Every year we’ve gotten more people, more volunteers,” Lindsay said.

Some of those volunteers come from within, and others have been drawn from outside the church. Lindsay recalled one woman who visited the Journey with her children, and found the experience so meaningful that she came to church at First Baptist the next Sunday.

“She now works at the church, and then the next year she was working in Journey,” Lindsay said. “Our volunteers have grown, the churches in the community have all come together and helped us [too].” 

From its more humble beginnings, the event now is quite the spectacle. People start in the church auditorium, with Christmas music playing and “snow” sprinkling down. From there, a pair of guides will take groups of 20-30 out into the cold for a walk-through, interactive retelling of one of the most famous Christmas stories.  

“The map-maker tells you how to get where you’re going, and then the next station you go to is the Roman soldiers,” said Campbell. “Which is very scary.”

The soldiers play up being the bad guys of the tale, bearing weapons and armor and riding horses to fit their intimidating part. 

“That’s what I even promise the guys, ‘hey you can be a bad guy for a night,’” Campbell said.  

The Journey takes guests through performers in costumes, including the Three Wise Men, shepherds and angels. 

It winds through an active market full of busy trade – which Campbell said is a highlight of the trip, with busy booths and audio tricks to really set the environment – before finally arriving at an inn and then onto the manger, where baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph are. 

“That’s where the scene outside ends,” Campbell said. After that, guests get to warm up, go inside and have hot chocolate and home-made cookies.

“All the older ladies make dozens of cookies,” Campbell said, adding they have so many cookies leftover they are eating them Sunday mornings for weeks after. 

The whole event is made to be as convincing and immersive as possible.

One year, Campbell remembers a little boy who looked up at his mother and asked, “Where are we?” 

“Mission accomplished there,” she said.

There are over 150 church members and volunteers in costume, with at least another hundred working behind the scenes serving food, playing music, helping with parking and otherwise running around getting things done.

The actors playing Roman solders aren’t the only ones leaning into their roles – Campbell said everyone really dives into character to the point where the show pretty much runs itself when all the pieces are in play. 

“We do one rehearsal the week before, and I tell you, God has just blessed it, because people have just taken their roles and they have run with it,” Campbell said.  Campbell said sometimes she thinks the people who benefit most from the Journey are the people working it. Members of the church from the pastor to the youth director take part in the event in some shape or form.

“All our staff is involved, our youth director is a soldier, been a soldier since day one,” Campbell said. “Our minister of education has been in the market most of that time, [hes’s] been a candle-maker.” 

The event does take guests outside, so warm clothes and suitable shoes are encouraged. 

Fire pits are all over for people to warm up, and animals of all kinds are apart of the event to help set the scene, from sheep to donkeys. 

“And those are all people that say ‘hey, I’ve got these animals,’” Campbell said. “We say ‘okay, dress in costume and come out and do it.’”

Every year has its challenges, but as the Journey enters its sixth year, Campbell said a lot of the wrinkles have been worked out – and all that’s left is adding polish to the performance. 

“Improved costumes every year, improved sets every year, and its just a really fun time,” Campbell said. “And our target is, this is the church’s gift to our community, and we kind of like to target families because of the children, but it’s practical for any age.” 

Attendees for the event do come from all over, but Campbell said the target audience is the local community.

“We want the community to know that this is the greatest gift, that God gave his son Jesus to us,” she said. “And just to maybe revive a story that people have heard maybe all their life in a new way, a fresh new way.”

This article originally ran on Content Exchange