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RELIGION / JOHN DART : Street Scenes of Bethlehem Give Down-to-Earth Look at Nativity

Christmas: Two congregations create replicas of the city where Jesus was born, taking visitors on a trek through time.

It isn’t easy to summon forth the volunteer labor each year, but two small congregations will again offer the San Fernando Valley a taste of Bethlehem, as described in the biblical Nativity stories, this weekend and next.

“We don’t have the resources to do the Valley version of ‘The Glory of Christmas,’ ” said Jeff Holder, referring to the Rev. Robert Schuller’s famously lavish production in Garden Grove. Holder is a church member who originated the annual Bethlehem street scenes on the front lawn of Valley Community Church in Van Nuys.

His words were repeated at St. John’s in the Valley United Methodist Church in Canoga Park, the site of the other exhibit. “We’re not the Crystal Cathedral; it’s not flashy,” said Pru (for Prudence) Augustine, the pastor’s wife, who organizes the “Journey to Bethlehem” on the church’s 5 1/2-acre grounds.

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Nevertheless, on four nights starting tonight, more than 2,000 people are expected to stroll through the seventh annual Bethlehem ’93 street scenes at the Van Nuys church and about 300 will probably be guided through the sixth annual Bethlehem journey at the Canoga Park church.

Although representatives at both churches say the effort is rewarding, it takes a high percentage of Valley Community’s 100 members and St. John’s 200 members to pull it off each year.

Valley Community Church members can handle more visitors because they do not limit the flow by taking groups in shifts, as St. John’s does.

“You can spend 10 minutes or two hours, whatever you feel like doing,” said Valley Community’s Holder, vice president of the Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon studio.

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Before visitors enter the replica of Bethlehem in Van Nuys, they are handed fake shekels to spend in the marketplace, but tax collectors hit them up for a portion before they get very far, Holder said.

Holder described the scenes this way: The costumed townspeople such as bakers, seamstresses and merchants talk among themselves and with the visitors. Shepherds are in town telling people about a remarkable birth and the reactions of those playing Bethlehem residents range from interest to indifference. Free refreshments are handed out by the innkeeper, who is apologetic about having no rooms available.

As live animals wander around, visitors discover that a couple staying in the stable just had a baby.

“Each year we add something new,” he said. “This year we will have a fire in the center of the marketplace where people can be warm as they sit and drink some refreshments.

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“We also created a campsite for the three wise men whom visitors encounter as they leave Bethlehem and go back to their cars,” he said.

One year, Valley Community Church tried to stage the pageant all day on a Saturday, but the show fell flat in the sunshine. “At night, you can suspend disbelief and forget that you are right off Sherman Way,” Holder said.

By comparison, the candle-lighted “Journey to Bethlehem” in Canoga Park has a more evangelical flavor, beginning with angelic annunciations of the birth and prophetic words from the Nativity story and ending with a final stop in the church’s chapel for a short message by the Rev. Joseph Augustine, the pastor, who offers visitors Communion.

“About 75% of the people do receive Communion,” said Pru Augustine.

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Three groups of about 30 visitors each are escorted through on each of the four nights, she said. Unlike the scenes at the Van Nuys church, the visitors are observers who are not supposed to engage the actors in conversation.

About 40 church members participate on a given night, either as guides or costumed characters.

“Everybody wants to be a part of the inn crowd,” said the pastor’s wife, “because they are boisterous, they are warmer and they have food there.”

Admission is free at both churches. Here are their schedules:

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Dec. 11, 12, 18 and 19; Valley Community Church, 17424 Sherman Way, Van Nuys, from 7 to 9 p.m. each night. Information: (818) 708-1025.

Dec. 11, 12, 17 and 18, at St. John’s in the Valley, 20600 Roscoe Blvd., Canoga Park; tours each night at 6:30, 7:15 and 8 p.m. Information: (818) 341-6434.


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