A Christmas season event that became quite popular in its first presentation last year will return this year. It’s meant to bring the true message of Christmas in a compelling, real way.

People who experience “Bethlehem and Beyond” at Longview Heights Baptist Church in Olive Branch will actually get to “drive back” and experience Christmas and the events leading up to the birth of Christ. They will also see what it might have been like at the time of the resulting death and resurrection of Christ, events that fulfilled the “reason for the Season.”

Bethlehem and Beyond involves a lot of people participating for a lot of people who want to make it part of their new Christmas tradition, said Monica Kirby of Longview Heights, who is in charge of the production.

“It’s a cast of about 400 and we have another 400 working behind the scenes,” Kirby said. “Last year, we saw an average of about 520 cars come through each night. It was a nightmare for the Sheriff’s Department as we had about 6,000 guests come through and hear the story.”

Some came from as far as two hours away, Kirby said, adding those who came were glad they did.

“You helped us better share the truth about Christmas to our five-year-old and you did it in excellence and you did for free for us,” said one comment to the event’s Facebook page. “I know it wasn't free for you! Time, finance and love went into this! My son was amazed!”

Kirby said the church wanted Bethlehem and Beyond to be more than just a living nativity scene.

“We simply want to share the true meaning of Christmas in a way that makes it relatable today,” Kirby said. “Bethlehem and Beyond consists of 11 scenes that tell the story, beginning with Isaiah’s prophecy and goes the way through the events from Gabriel, the declaration of the census, and past the day of Christmas to the cross and to the tomb.”

The idea for the production came in staff planning last year and Kirby, who also serves as Special Needs Ministry Director, took on leadership of the project.

It is meant to place those who come back to the time when the prophecy of Christ’s coming was first made, to the journey of Mary and Joseph, the birth of Christ, followed by his crucifixion and resurrection.

People have the option of driving through the scenes in their vehicle themselves while a provided CD explains what is happening or use an on-site shuttle service with a costumed cast member acting as tour guide.

“Once you go through the gate and enter the marketplace, you really have no sense of today,” Kirby said. “You have a sense of what it was like in Bethlehem then, when Mary and Joseph were making their way. There’s broom makers, fish mongers and tax collectors, Roman guards and beggar children. There’s fruit and vegetable vendors. It’s just that kind of place because we want people to sense what it was like then.”

A cup of hot chocolate is also provided to help enhance the festive, but spiritual experience.

Kirby asks for patience from those coming in case the lines get long, as they were last year and are expected to be this year. She adds local law enforcement will assist in traffic control.

“The Sheriff’s Department and the Police Department are helping us with traffic and there are also going to be signs, so people will know when the event closes,” Kirby said.

Activity on social media has indicated that interest in Bethlehem and Beyond is quite high.

“We’ve seen about 128,000 people reached by our social media posts about the event so far this year,” Kirby said.

Dates for Longview Heights Baptist Church’s Bethlehem and Beyond this year are Dec. 15-17 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. each evening. More information is available at the church’s website, longviewheights.org and click on “Ministries.”

“I think it’s something that will become a tradition and that families will come year after year,” Kirby said. “We’re excited to see the young children see that the story is not just Christmas trees and Santa Claus.”

Bob Bakken is Staff Writer and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.

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