I can only imagine that our youth director, Bill, sold the Session the idea as, “Just a tiny live Nativity. You know, with the kids.”
Presbyterians vote on everything. Sometimes they even vote on whether or not to hold a vote. So when Bill decided that he wanted to put on a live Nativity drama in the front parking lot of our church? It had to go to the Session for a vote.
We were not an adventurous church. Our choir sang Handel, our organist played Bach, and everyone sat in the same pew, same seats, week after week. Bill was the first youth director I remember that had ideas.
Saturday nights he opened up the youth house and let us hang out there for a movie and lots of socializing. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in the summer he found adults in the church to teach us to play bridge, cook something, have a proper volleyball game, or anything else he could arrange. Wednesday and Sundays were full too. Basically, any day of the week he could get us to be there, he would.
He created this tight little community of misfit kids. It wasn’t quite enough for Bill though.
“A live Nativity drama. We will build the set. I’ll write the script. We’ll record it with music, and play it through a sound system as people walk down through the scenes.”
When he told us about it, it still didn’t sound that crazy. We are all pretty excited to have something to do the moment exams were over. It was a Tuesday afternoon that we all met in the parking lot, waiting for the trucks to arrive so we could get started.
“What are the trucks bringing?”
“Scaffolding and tree limbs.”
Within an hour of learning what scaffolding was, there we were, assembling it and tying on branches to create this wall of greenery. Aside from the very serious construction equipment, it all seemed rather benign. That’s when we noticed a couple of the adults adding some scaffolding that seemed particularly high.
“Hey, that’s taller than this part.”
“Yes. Yes it is.”
“This is where the angels will be.”
“Aren’t the little kids going to be the angels?”
“Yes. Yes they are.”
Bill had somehow recruited the elementary school kids to be angels in this production. I still don’t know if he convinced all of these parents to bring their tiny humans out in the dark for the three nights before Christmas before or after he said,
“And by the way, they are all going to climb a ladder in their angel robes and stand on the second story of the scaffolding while they quietly wait for the spotlight to hit the shim cloth and display them with the teenaged angel Gabriel.”
Oh, didn’t I mention the spotlight? The giant theatrical spotlight on its own scaffolding in the back of the parking lot?
You might think that the first year of such an undertaking, one would start small.
Bill Ballou doesn’t do small.
The scaffolding went up. The inn front was built complete with opening window for the wife to come out and send Mary and Joseph away. The stable was built. Hay was acquired. Livestock were delivered.
That’s right. For three days and three nights, our pristine church in the heart of Northeast Jackson became an urban farm. Of course we couldn’t leave the animals alone, so it became the oldest boys’ duty to sleep over at the church and sheep sit. I’m fairly certain that job required more than a six pack of Miller Lite.
One year, Bill talked the Irby family into letting us use one of their white polo ponies instead of a donkey for Mary and Joseph. This majestic horse was the crowning jewel of the set. He was strong and tall and spectacularly fast. This last fact we learned as he took off across the parking lot and galloped down Ridgewood Road to the soundtrack of honking and screeching.
The year everyone remembers best though, is the year that Mrs. Vandervelde perfectly timed the birth of her sixth child to coincide with the filming of the Covenant Presbyterian Live Nativity Drama for the local CBS affiliate to be broadcast on Christmas morning.
I was playing Mary. My zit-free, perfect-haired boyfriend, Robert, was playing Joseph. Gabriel, played by Susan, was nervously perched high above the ground keeping watch over the tiny human angels.
Honestly, that’s all I remember of the details. I have the whole thing on an incredibly useless VHS tape at my mother’s house. The only part past how worried Susan was that she would lose an angel over the second story scaffolding is the part where Mrs. Vandervelde handed me this tiny baby just a day or two old.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, but I never laid him in a manger. I held him close, staring at his perfect face and taking in his sweet baby smell. I had never felt such a presence.
“Surely this right here is the child of God.”
Then he farted. The spotlight moved away to the shepherds, I handed back the imitation Christ child, and Robert and I made our way back to Nazareth to wait for the wise men to show up two years later.
It’s been 25 years since I pushed my best friend up the scaffolding behind a dozen miniature angels, promising to catch her if she fell. 25 years since I held that tiny baby pretending to be his mother. 25 years since I’ve had a group of friends that close and a mentor who believed we could do absolutely anything.
Thanks, Bill. We were ready to do absolutely anything for you.