For the past 17 years, Randall Church of Williamsville has held a free guided walk through the story of Christmas in an event called the Pilgrimage to Bethlehem. This year's event, with about 200 people playing a role in the production – about of third of them teens and younger children – took place last Thursday, Friday and Saturday. About 2,400 people take the tour each year.
Though the planning and organization of the event begins months in advance, the final preparation only takes about two weeks to pull together.
Diane Sharpe, the children's director and longtime program coordinator, explains why the church believes this production is important.
"We started the pilgrimage because we wanted to share the message of the first Christmas with our community," she said.
This year, the church enlarged the scenes to accommodate the vastly growing number of visitors. The crowd is broken into small groups to walk through the production.
Rebecca Bleuer, a home-schooled senior who is the student program coordinator for the pilgrimage, has been volunteering for six years.
"I have been doing a lot of different things for this, like being able to be a guide, and I come here [to help with] setting up," she said. "I am just here to help with whatever they need help with doing. And it's just so much fun, there's so many kids being able to do it now. I really like interacting with them and learning what they like to do and guiding them. Guiding people through is so much fun because you can also interact with them and see how much fun they have doing it. And when there's little kids, you can ... see what they learned from it."
The pilgrimage is set up to make visitors feel as if they have gone back in time to walk Mary and Joseph's path to Bethlehem. This is accomplished in a series of scenes, the first being a rabbi (teacher) and his scribe. Caleb Samland, a home-schooled sophomore, portrayed the scribe for the first time this year.
"I think everybody did a great job acting this year," he said.
The following scenes show Mary, three men from the East who were following the star and then King Herod questioning the birth of the baby. The tour then goes outside to follow a donkey along the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Along the pathway to a building with a great star crowning it, visitors encounter a trio of dancing angels with shepherds bowing before them while Handel's "Messiah" plays.
Among the angels this year for the first time was Melissa Wolf, a freshman at Williamsville South High School.
"I think that it is really fun to do this with everyone and serve God at the same time," said Melissa. "This is just a really fun experience."
Visitors then arrive inside a building representing the town of Bethlehem. The scenes include merchants selling items and innkeepers who had no room for additional visitors.
A door opens, and Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are grouped together around the manger. In a pen next to the trio are an Icelandic sheep, two goats and a miniature horse (the animals are supplied by Kelkenberg Farm of Clarence). The conclusion of the pilgrimage is marked by a spotlight on three crosses.
Josh LaRavia has been the lead pastor at Randall Church for nearly two years.
"The pilgrimage is so important because even though it's a cliché, Jesus is the reason for the season," LaRavia said. "We live in a very busy, fast-paced culture with a lot of distractions, but the purpose is God and how Jesus was born ... it's an amazing thing to wrap your mind around. I think of John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.' We really want people to know the truth, that Jesus is real and that he loves them. We want people to grow in him. We want to share him with the community. That's why we do the Pilgrimage to Bethlehem."
Tim Bleuer, a home-schooled freshman that has been acting in the production for two years, said, "I think that seeing the kids' reactions is the best part. I also think that the last scene is very powerful."
At the end of the tour, visitors are encouraged to stop by for a cookie and hot cocoa. Crafts, coloring and face-painting are available for younger children.
Carly Hynd, a sophomore at Clarence High School, volunteers to help with face-painting.
"I like seeing the kids' faces the best," Carly said.