By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009 10:26 AM
Evangel Cathedral in Upper Marlboro kicked off its annual Christmas celebration Saturday with, as one organizer put it, the goal of making it more . . . everything. Live animals, special effects and a cast of more than 300 people certainly went a long way to achieving that goal.
Several thousand people filed into the church to see the annual event that details the life of Jesus Christ, from birth to death to resurrection. Evangel has been putting on the celebration for the past 19 years.
"We want to make this production magical for people, but we also want them to know that Jesus is still the reason for the season," Rhonda Belt, who directs the play. She said cast members have been practicing since August for the production that will run the next two weekends.
"Where can you go and get a taste of Broadway right at a local church with local folks?" asked Evangel associate minister Jacqueline Hatcher. "This is our church, these are our kids, these are our grandkids. Regardless of their talent, there is room for anyone who wants to get on stage and do something special."
Last Friday, police officers, military families and a variety of nonprofit groups from across the area filled the sanctuary -- about 2,200 people -- for "Noel night," a chance for the community to see a free performance.
Capt. Bella Carroll brought a group from the Salvation Army's Harbor Lights Center, a residential facility in the District.
"Regardless of the different districts that we come from, we are all one," Carroll said. "What was good was that some of our folks found the Lord for the first time."
Although many area churches put on Christmas plays that focus on the birth of Christ, Evangel's production also includes a vivid depiction of the crucifixion. Several people covered their eyes and walked out during a scene where Roman soldiers appeared to whip and bloody an actor playing Jesus.
Evangel's associate pastor, Elder Kevin Matthews said the church doesn't apologize for the graphic scenes. "Jesus was born on this earth to die for the sins of man, and you can't take that out of the Christmas story. Sometimes we sugarcoat the message, but the fact is the biblical account is even more graphic."
For the next two weekends there will be three performances of Evangel's Christmas celebration on Saturdays and one on Sundays. The Saturday performances are at noon, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. On Sundays there will be a 5 p.m. performance. The cost is $20.