Bethlehem revisited

WAXAHACHIE, Texas — Members of a Texas community 25 miles south of Dallas have been inviting visitors lately to Bethlehem — the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago, that is. And they've been doing so without leaving town.

Townspeople, both LDS and non-LDS, in this community of 20,000 have recreated the ancient, walled city of Bethlehem, and in re-enacting the birth of Christ have fostered the true meaning of Christmas in a poignant way. The re-enactment is traditionally held the first two weekends in December each year.

The concept — a unique response, you might say, to the First Presidency's call for Latter-day Saints to become more involved in community service — was initiated three years ago by the Rev. Victor Dindot of the Central Presbyterian Church in Waxahachie. The Rev. Dindot convinced a small cadre of local leaders that the project could be accomplished.

"When people believe in an idea they will work to make it a reality," the minister said. Central Presbyterian provided a 100,000-plus-square-foot parking lot as a permanent site for the city — now called "Bethlehem Revisited." The Rev. Dindot stated at a cast party (held, incidentally, in the LDS ward's cultural hall) that without the efforts of the "Mormon Church" the project would not have been possible.

Among the early leaders sustaining the project was Larry Byrne, bishop of the Waxahachie Ward, of which half are participating in roles or with technical support. "'Bethlehem Revisited' held the potential to unite a lot of different faiths in a most cooperative manner," he said. "It is a wonderful project for our ward members to participate in. It brings them together for more fellowship since the Waxahachie Ward is so spread out over the entire county.

"With so many Latter-day Saints participating, it has enhanced the spirit of the presentation," Bishop Byrne continued. "Almost our entire PEC (ward priesthood executive committee) has played roles or built sets."

Bishop Byrne added that the mission president granted permission for five elders to help build the village and act as cast members.

Participating as board members, artistic directors and playing the innkeepers has been a blessing to stake missionaries Mike and Brenda Leukhardt. Sister Leukhardt stated that "Bethlehem Revisited" provides a rare opportunity for community groups, civic organizations and churches to band together. "And what a magnificent project — a live presentation of the Christmas story as portrayed in the scriptures.

"The village has a special spirit and holds physical experiences for all the senses," she continued. "During the first year, an elderly couple who had recently returned from living in the Middle East came to the inn of 'Bethlehem Revisited' and commented that the city even had the smell of the marketplace in Morocco."

Like Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago, "Bethlehem Revisited" is a walled village, encircled by a 7-foot-high wall with several gates. The narrowest of these gates imitates an "Eye of the Needle" security gate that is too small for a camel to walk through easily. The wall, as well as the grotto that serves as the stable in which are the Nativity scenes and other major structures, were contributed and built by Monolithic Dome Constructors Inc., from nearby Italy, Texas. The president of Monolithic Domes, David B. South, is a stake high councilor.

"The way we have gone about the project has built a permanent legacy that will last for years," said Brother South. " 'Bethlehem Revisited' is a very enduring theme with a facility and production to match."

"Forgive the pun," Brother Leukhardt added, "but that wall literally gave us something concrete to see and touch. It made our dream a reality, and it happened at exactly the right time because we needed something real at that point in our development."

The walls — 51,000 square feet of them — surround replicas of quarters for Roman soldiers, craftsmen, various family dwellings, a marketplace, shops, a synagogue (Hebrew school) and the inn that had no room for Mary and Joseph, and the stable that did. The appearance of the angel to the shepherds in the fields is depicted outside the walls. Herod's Palace is portrayed on the front of the Gothic-style Presbyterian church.

" 'Where two or more are gathered . . . ;' this is the spirit of Bethlehem, the gathering of God's people to worship His holy name," stated Sheryl Sullivan, artistic director of the presentation. "His love is ever sure. This has truly been a labor of love and dedication. The script for the major characters is from Luke and the other scriptures."

The cast has grown to more than 130 roles with numerous others serving on construction and technical crews.

"I have been very impressed at how people representing so many different aspects of our community have worked so well together," said Hilda Chapman, executive director of "Bethlehem Revisited." "Sharing a common bond of celebrating the birth of Christ has created a wonderful spirit of cooperation."

"This thing has been fantastic," said N.E. (Buck) Jordan, executive director of the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce. "It is awesome to see what has happened in just three years — development from a vacant lot to an authentic walled city. We have had total cooperation among the Chamber of Commerce, the city, school officials, downtown merchants, the county and area churches. Waxahachie is a strong town for volunteers. And so many were instrumental in the project at one point or another. Every time I go to 'Bethlehem' I am amazed and uplifted."

Brother Leukhardt added: "We hope to continue to get better with every season. We have a goal and a mission. Our goal is to create a village as close to Bethlehem of the New Testament as we possibly can. Our mission is to teach the true meaning of Christmas."

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