Ilene Johnson first yearned to go to Bethlehem as a little girl when she played the role of the Virgin Mary more than 50 years ago in a two-room schoolhouse.

This Christmas Eve, the 67-year-old retired nurse--a daughter of sharecroppers, the mother of four, a breast cancer survivor and a widow--will finally get her chance.

Johnson, along with 43 other members of the Maple Springs Baptist Church Mass Choir in Capitol Heights, will sing Christmas songs in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. The choir is one of eight from around the world selected to perform in the annual celebration in Bethlehem.

"I am so excited," said Johnson, who lives in Anacostia. "I feel like a child with a new toy."

At a time when many people are consumed with worries about year 2000 glitches or what Santa won't bring, Johnson and her fellow gospel choir members are planning to make the Christmas story a real part of their lives.

More than 60,000 visitors are expected in Manger Square, and terrorist threats have been made. But Maple Springs's senior pastor, the Rev. Chester A. McDonald, isn't worried about his flock. "The Bible says, 'Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.' It says something that people would give up their Christmas and ho, ho, ho to go abroad."

That's certainly what Johnson and her 37-year-old daughter, Eilene, think.

"Christmas is about Jesus, it is not about gifts," said Eilene Johnson, the choir's president. Going to Bethlehem is much better than "Christmas shopping and maxing out a credit card," she said.

The trip is costing choir members nearly $2,000 each, and most are paying their own way. Choir members arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday.

For many choir members, the trip is the fulfillment of lifelong dreams.

Nichelle Daniel, 31, of Upper Marlboro, wants to see where Jesus was baptized. The church's assistant pastor, the Rev. L.W. Jordan, wants to sail across the Sea of Galilee, where the Bible says Jesus calmed a storm with the words, "Peace be still." And Tim Washington, 31--a choir member and assistant football coach at Bishop McNamara High School, in Forestville--wants to walk the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried his wooden cross before he was crucified.

During the 10-day trip, choir members will perform at the Jerusalem Theater and at a Baptist church in Nazareth and will participate in a baptismal service in the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized.

At Manger Square, they will perform with groups from Cuba, Kenya, Russia and Sweden, among others. James Dixon's Exousia & Company Choir, from Houston, is the only other U.S. group performing.

Maple Springs choir director Jimmie Gentry said that while the group has been rehearsing "O Holy Night" and "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," it still needed to learn several Hebrew songs. The group also practiced a few foot-stomping holiday selections such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain," in case it gets a chance to perform a few soulful selections.

"We are going to do the same thing we do on Sunday morning," said Gentry, whose group was rocking Monday night during its final practice. "They have asked for Christmas carols, but we are going to sing to the glory of God."

Chris Ashe, the choir's assistant music director, said the group is feeling the pressure to perform at a high level. "We want to represent the church, Christians and positive young black Americans that the world doesn't see on CNN."

Moses Hanania, president of Consolidated Tours, organized the choir trip. Hanania said his Atlanta-based firm has taken many black church groups to Israel in the past 25 years. But this one is particularly special, he said.

"This is really a dream of a lifetime to perform on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem at the end of the millennium," Hanania said in an interview from Jerusalem.

As Ilene Johnson sang "O Holy Night" during choir practice this week, Eilene Johnson looked at her mother's smile and said, "It is special being part of my mother's dream."

CAPTION: Sharon Washington, right, Shirley Anglin and Georgia Woolridge rehearse for the Maple Springs Baptist Church's Christmas journey to Bethlehem.

CAPTION: Choir members Mary Rouse, left, and Shirley Howard share a laugh at the church in Capitol Heights that is sending 44 musicians to Israel.