Pastor Roger Ball of First Baptist Church of Tempe is like many folks this time of year who relish the joy of Christmas and enjoy displaying it with elaborate lights and decorations.
In Pastor Ball’s case though, you might say that joy is rather infectious: each year more than 45,000 people pass through the gate that leads to his backyard for a chance to “Walk through Bethlehem.”
No, not the actual town located in the West Bank, some 5,000 miles from Tempe. This one’s a lot closer to home and you won’t be needing your passport or luggage.
The house, located at 618 W. Natal Circle, Mesa, stands at the end of a street on which most of the houses are festooned with intricate, colorful light displays. Snowmen, angels—even the Grinch—are among those you’ll feast your eyes on if you’re lucky enough to find a parking spot on an adjacent street.
At Pastor Ball’s house, the gate stands open and as visitors enter, they see dozens of painted, wooden figures illuminated by tasteful lighting: shepherds, 100 sheep, angels, and of course, Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus in a manger. A recording on a loudspeaker tells the biblical Christmas story and speaks of the love God has for each person, and in particular, his presence among those who faced death in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The elaborate “Walk through Bethlehem” project began in 2002, when the nation was still reeling.
“Most people don’t go to church,” Pastor Ball said. “So we believe that this is a great way, a gentle way—a gracious way—to remind them what Christmas is all about.”
There are no Bibles or tracts being passed out, no proselytizing, just the warmth of flames that blaze in a fire pit in the driveway where church members and staff sit laughing and sharing stories. The night Wrangler News visited, even Santa was in on the fun, sitting by the fire and getting a few laughs from children who happened by.
“We’re not interested in beating people or bullying people,” Pastor Ball said. “We just want a gracious presentation of the love of Christ. We think that the outreach to tell the story does that, so we’ve been doing it every year. It’s well-received.”
The project doesn’t exactly go up in a flash. It takes 300 volunteers to set it up and dismantle it each year. When it began, there was a year’s worth of planning involved and 150 volunteers. From drawing the scenes, construction of a cross and figures, artistic painting, electrical lighting and an asphalt path to a block wall extension and pool fence, plenty of sweat equity went into the effort.
Walk through Bethlehem is open each year, from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. and is managed entirely by volunteers from First Baptist Church of Tempe.
— Joyce Coronel