From Bethlehem to Ennis

ENNIS, TX — New Hope Church has entertained the community since 2007 with its large-scale, Broadway-style Christmas celebration, merging the story of the birth of Jesus with sleigh-loads of music and holiday
cheer. Although the creative team responsible for the spectacular annual production is taking a break this year, members resting on their considerable Yuletide laurels, the show thousands have come to love since its inception will return in 2013. But the church isn’t completely abandoning its theatrical chops this year, and vestiges of the pageantry of New Hope’s signature program will be glimpsed in its 10:00 a.m. December 23 worship service. “We just thought it was best to give our group some time to enjoy the season,” explained Buck Marshall, pastor of New Hope, a Church of God-affiliated ministry. “Ordinarily, none of us even put up our Christmas trees until the middle of December, because we’re so busy rehearsing for the show.”

This year, the cast and crew of some 150 volunteers will be able to spend more time with their families, tearing themselves away just long enough to stage a few highlights of the full-length extravaganza for the Sunday before Christmas. “It will be a candlelight service with components of the big show included,” Buck said. “There won’t be all the set changes, but there will be some of the historical costume segments and a selection of the most popular songs.”

While Buck appears in the church’s presentation — “I’m head elf, just so you know!” he laughed — it’s his wife, Rhea, who has directed it from the beginning. As modest as she is talented, Rhea is the force behind much of the success that New Hope’s Christmas Celebration has enjoyed among church members, as well as the public at large who have flocked to the program over the last five years. But she sees it as a team effort, crediting the show’s influence on the community to the dedication of the troupe of performers with whom she works.

“Christmas is a joyful time of year, but it can be a very hard time for people, too,” Rhea pointed out. “This program gives hope to those who are struggling. We really don’t know what weight is one someone’s shoulders when they walk in the door, so there’s potential to impact lives, and that’s what motivates us.”

The Christmas Celebration has proved more than a popular attraction. It’s a family affair. Not only do Buck and Rhea perform in the musical, but their children, Caroline, 8, and Jonathan, 5, are in the play.

Their involvement underscores the bond the couple has shared since meeting on the campus of Tennessee’s Lee University over a decade ago. Both came to the performing arts through their families. Buck’s mother is one of the singing Rogers Sisters who performed all over Texas in the 1980s, and Rhea’s father is a Florida minister who always encouraged his daughter’s vocal and dramatic participation in church productions. “I’ve been interested in theater since I was a kid,” she said. “From doing special effects and makeup to singing and acting, I love it all.”

Her experience has stood her in good stead as the creative mastermind of a mammoth stage production, incorporating all the sights and sounds of a full-on opera. Among the accoutrement of New Hope’s sanctuary-turned-theater are a fiber-optic curtain, fog machines, scenery for as many as five set changes and thousands of dollars’ worth of costumes. The props weren’t always so elaborate. At first, essential equipment and other costly items were rented or borrowed. But as the reputation of the Christmas Celebration spread, donations of money and raw materials poured in from local businesses and individuals.

As an example of New Hope members’ own dedication to the program, Rhea recalled the expenditure of $600 by Leslie Skrivanek for dressmaking fabric, in addition to countless hours of labor spent designing and making costumes. The show has since developed into an expertly arranged, slickly produced number worthy of Las Vegas, Branson or indeed New York. For all the show’s beauty and the sense of personal accomplishment it has brought to Buck and Rhea, it’s the success of the message behind the dazzling scenes that the pair takes pride in. “Some people come to see our show who’d never attend a regular church service,” Buck admitted. “So
it’s important that we reach them. We celebrate the nostalgia, the sentimentality, but the real meaning of Christmas is what we want people to understand.” Buck hopes hearts will be touched in the subtext of the songs and dances, as well as more directly in the 10-minute gospel message he delivers.

Rhea stressed that the production is not only free to the public, it is open to people of all denominations. “We aren’t trying to win new members,” she said. “We even introduce pastors of other churches who are in the audience and encourage people to worship at their churches as well. We just want people to grow spiritually.”

The celebration provides many opportunities for audiences to be moved. Love and faith thread their way through every aspect of the show, from a classic recreation of Victorian London as a backdrop for carolers to the replication of the sacred manger in Bethlehem. Regular attendees have their favorites. It might be the English scene in the time of Charles Dickens, complete with a toy shop and an old-fashioned sleigh, or the elves skit, or the “Hot Chocolate” act inspired by the children’s movie Polar Express. Ennis Mayor Russell Thomas and his mother, Maggie, are faithful fans.

Their favorite part of the show is the “Happy Birthday, Jesus” number, put on by a cast of children, some as young as 5 and 6.

Rhea constantly updates themes in the show but one emotional part of the program called “People Need the Lord,” has remained unaltered. This scene, revealing the circle of Wise Men bowing before the baby Jesus, is gradually augmented by actors seated among the audience. These men and women, dressed as ordinary citizens — a cop, a waitress, a soldier — walk to the stage and kneel down. The final character to join the group is an elderly homeless woman who starts up the aisle but turns back, fearing she might be excluded. Instead, a child reaches out to her and draws her into the circle.

Buck feels this wordless byplay puts the truth of Christmas in perfect perspective. “It’s not about the rush to buy presents,” he said. “The truth is whoever you are, wherever you are, no matter what you’ve done in life or what’s been done to you, there’s hope for a better life.”

Written by Randy Bigham.