Mary and Joseph shuffled side by side down the concrete path until they arrived at a stable made of plywood and weathered two-by-fours. The couple eased onto bales of straw, leaned over the manger and peered down at baby Jesus. The newborn before the two costumed teenagers was just a doll, swaddled in a sky blue blanket stitched with a teddy bear, but the seriousness in their dark eyes made it hard to tell.
The pair’s earnestness, though, was being tested. They had been forced to abandon their miniature donkey, Buddy, who was acting particularly stubborn. And when the adoring wise men approached the manger with their gifts (apple cinnamon cider Yankee Candles rather than gold, frankincense and myrrh), they numbered only two, because the third sage was contending with a migraine. Then, at the moment a heavenly host of angels was supposed to emerge in divine splendor, nothing happened.
Mercifully, perhaps, almost no one was there to see the mishaps. The crowd for the night’s first performance included three men, two women and Coco, a bundled-up poodle.
Around the world each December, Christians celebrate one of their holiest holidays by reenacting Jesus’ birth more than 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. Many productions are elaborate and professional, drawing thousands of visitors and donations. But many others, such as this one at a local park in Savage, Md., are mounted in obscurity, void of pretense, and sustained by little more than faith.
And so, for 16 years, the First Baptist Church in this town of 6,000 has hosted a live outdoor Nativity. This year, the honor of playing the lead roles had been given to Ayo Tunde-Sanya and Clinton Azagba, each 17 and the children of Nigerian immigrants. It was a frigid Friday night in the middle of their senior year of high school, and yet here they were, without complaint.
The church is tiny, with just 70 active members, but had somehow produced a troupe of actors so multi-hued they could have passed for a (far) off-Broadway cast of “Hamilton” — young and old, immigrant and native-born, black and white and Latino. The former mill town is just 25 miles north of Washington, the symbol of the nation’s deep divide, but it felt much farther away. The lone nod to politics came from a message on the church’s front sign: “If you want America to be great again put Jesus first!”
The congregation hosts block parties, Easter egg hunts and movie nights year-round, but no event is more important to them than the Nativity. It has never mattered much how many visitors show up or how miserable the weather is. They do it because, in different ways to each of them, it’s meaningful, even when the wind chill plunges to 19 degrees, as it did that night.
And now, after weeks of preparation, the Nativity had just unraveled, so Pastor J. Alan Latham walked out from the darkness and gave a brief sermon on why the story of Jesus still matters.
“We’re sorry for the technical difficulties,” he added. “The angels are normally a little more glorious.”
Latham also apologized for what he was about to do: An impromptu a cappella rendition of “Away in a Manger.”
Then, suddenly, midway through the atonal second verse, relief arrived when “O Come, All Ye Faithful” blared through the speakers, and bright lights on the scaffolding behind the stable flashed on to illuminate the caroling, white-robed celestial spirits.
And at last, on the ruddy faces of the five spectators, faint smiles appeared.
Bill Waller couldn’t keep his brown eyes dry.
One tear after another leaked down the creases in his bright red cheeks, drawn out by the crisp, chilly air, but he had no time to search for tissues. The show would begin in three hours, and the 76-year-old had much to do.
The $20 steel-wire star above the manger needed to be connected, the angels’ green metal scaffolding needed to be wrapped in black tarp, the narrator’s four-
decade-old remote microphone needed to be tested, the shepherds’ fake orange fire needed to be switched on, and the bales of straw needed to be placed around the Nativity scene’s centerpiece.
“It’ll look much more stable-ish,” he promised, standing beneath the plywood roof.
Waller, an engineer who worked 34 years for the federal government, has attended First Baptist since 1969, and he’s helped construct the set for every one of the church’s Nativity performances.
Waller comes back year after year, he said, because he wants to do his part to tell an important story. But that’s not the only reason.
It also reminds Waller of the Nativity’s early years, back when his wife, Jacky, could still talk to him.
The two met at age 14 in a Birmingham, Ala., church, where they sang together in the choir.
“She was an alto,” he said. “I was the loudmouth.”
They’ve loved each other ever since, through four kids and 53 years of marriage.
Faith was always at the center of their relationship. He taught Sunday school. She started the church’s food pantry. And then there was the Nativity, which in its early days was much grander, complete with shops, townsfolk and a 12-foot-tall wrought-iron star. Each year, Waller would build the sets and, before her Alzheimer’s, Jacky would bring him lunch, hang the Christmas lights and join him in the caroling.
A nurse the couple met at church cares for Jacky full time now, but Waller’s devotion to his wife hasn’t faltered. He tickles her feet each morning until she laughs and stares into his eyes. He takes her on dates to Costco, where he wheels her inside and feeds her bite-size pieces of pepperoni pizza.
And when Waller needs to hear Jacky’s voice again, he serenades her with an old hymn, and for reasons he can’t explain, she always sings along.
It was an hour until showtime, and Pam Nixon couldn’t find the pillow needed to evoke Mary’s pregnancy, so the live Nativity’s longtime director dug up a partly deflated SpongeBob SquarePants rubber ball and what looked like a wadded-up green grass hula skirt.
“We’re going to make a belly,” she told an alarmed Ayo.
In the room across the hall, three young shepherds debated the best way to put on their robes and headscarves as the remaining wise men arrived. And within a few minutes, to Ayo’s relief, Nixon found the pillow, which she tucked inside one of two sweatshirts the girl wore beneath her white robe.
“How do you feel? Okay?” Nixon asked, patting Ayo’s stomach.
“Yeah,” the teen said.
“Sorry,” Nixon told her. “Just trying to make you look heavy with child.”
Ayo didn’t mind, just as she didn’t mind missing a friend’s party to sit through two hours of teeth-chattering cold. Christmas means a lot to her, both because of her beliefs and because the story behind it is one of the few she remembers learning in Nigeria, where Ayo lived before moving to the United States at age 4. To play Mary was a great honor.
“It’s about the message,” she said.
And, like so many of the other kids, she was eager to help Nixon — “Miss Pam” — who soon gathered her Nativity thespians for a final pep talk.
“When you see people walking up, don’t be talking about YouTube and going to the mall. That’s not conversation for first-century Judea,” she said, standing next to a box packed with 40 pairs of hand-warmers. “We didn’t have iPhones in Jesus’ day.”
Over 16 years, Nixon, who always plays an angel, had watched her production shrink along with her church. In the beginning, crowds came on buses to First Baptist’s mini-Bethlehem, but time passed and people quit, died or moved away.
As the congregation thinned, though, it also grew more diverse. Nixon, 53, had been one of the few black members, but in the past decade, Hondurans, Ghanaians and Burmese have all worshiped there. And year after year, with the help of whoever was able, she and a half-dozen others at First Baptist have willed the Nativity into being: Through snowstorms, icy rain, stable-toppling winds, a goat that rammed shepherds, a camel that spit on Mary and Joseph.
Nixon, who once performed on a broken hip, has never considered quitting. It matters too much to her, just as it does to fellow angel Liz Slater, 74, whose three granddaughters had all played Mary, and Dolores Duck, 84, who each year hands out foam cups of Swiss Miss hot chocolate.
Even on the night before her mother died of cancer in 2009, Nixon donned her white robe and sang louder than ever before and found the peace that she needed.
And now, on another frosty December evening, Nixon huddled atop the scaffolding and hoped that the First Baptist Church of Savage would help someone else find peace, too.
Down below, Waller had fixed the technical problem (a failed audio connection), the ailing third wise man had pushed through his headache, and Ayo and Clinton had adjusted their plan to make do without Buddy, the obstinate miniature donkey.
About a dozen people arrived for the second performance of the night, which was nearly flawless, and close to the same number showed up to the third.
Up on the scaffolding, the angels waited as their breath fogged the air and the silver tinsel garland outlining their ethereal white robes shimmered in the moonlight.
“Are we through?” one asked, but the others weren’t sure.
The cast normally gave four performances, but what if nobody else came?
Then, through the darkness, they saw something: Two visitors.
No one hesitated.
Mary and Joseph took their places, the shepherds circled the fake fire, the wise men hid behind the stable, and the angels prepared to sing.