The First United Methodist Church will host its annual “Return to Bethlehem” re-enactment Sunday, but this year with a twist — the annual walk-through will include a live play illustrating the Christmas story.

More than 90 congregants will perform, with an additional 20 people taking on roles behind the scenes, said organizer Brian Charleton.

“It takes quite a bit of work,” said congregant and office staff member Ken Smith, who has played a number of roles since the production began in 2007.

This year, he will serve as a fisherman in the mock town.

“The idea is for children to see it — it really brings the story home, to see the baby in the manger,” Smith said.

The period-appropriate displays will include traditional dress and dancing, foods including figs, grapes and matzo bread, and an ancient town come to life with church members acting in the roles of townspeople.

Tour guides will take groups of visitors through Bethlehem, where they will watch the actors perform routines from daily life during this ancient time, including using a pottery wheel, water well, blacksmith shop and marketplace.

On Wednesday, participants gathered at each station to review their dialogue, which they will exchange with the guides, wearing costumes including robes and headpieces.

Once the play portion begins, the viewers will watch as the three wise men enter the town, shepherds travel down from the hillside and Mary and Joseph enter Bethlehem. The actors will demonstrate the couple’s search for a place to stay for the night, eventually residing in the stable.

“We added the play to tug at the heartstrings,” Charleton said. “People can relate to Mary and Joseph. They had the same fears we all have — bringing a baby into this crazy world.”

The tour will end at the town’s stable, where Mary will give birth to baby Jesus.

Matthew Gilley, a lay supply pastor at the church who is studying to be a member of the clergy, will play the role of King Herod.

“My job is to scare people,” he said.

Last year was Gilley’s first time participating in the play. “My favorite part is seeing the reactions people have,” he said. “They really connect and get a better understanding. It turns the story from text into real life.” The church expects more than 200 people to attend Sunday’s 6 p.m. performance. Today’s performance was canceled because of the expected cold temperatures.

“Attendees are asked to bring a canned good for admission,” said Associate Pastor Cynthia Moss.

Shuttles will be provided from the church parking lot, as there is limited parking at Methodist Park. “We just have to rely on God for (good) weather,” Smith said.

Contact Madison Lozano​ at or 254-501-7552.

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