Approaching 25 years, Norridge outreach event shares the hope of Christmas
by Anne Urban
Kathy Gonzalez’s first exposure to The Salvation Army came two decades ago when she brought her granddaughter to see Come to Bethlehem at the Norridge Citadel, Ill., Corps, a suburb bordering northwest Chicago. Amazed by the live-action retelling of the nativity story—from prophecies of Jesus’ birth to the hope available through the resurrected Christ still today—Kathy began attending the corps and has been part this production ever since.
One year while she manned the prayer tent in the bustling Bethlehem marketplace, a couple entered to ask for prayer. “They’d been trying to have a baby,” said Kathy, who after praying offered the couple the opportunity to fill out a prayer request card so others in the corps could pray for them.
“A year later, the couple came back with their new baby boy to thank us! What a surprise and joy it was,” Kathy continued. “People are hurting out there and need to know there’s a loving God who cares so much for them.”
Since the production began almost 25 years ago, Come to Bethlehem has been visited by more than 30,000 people. The looks of wonder on guests’ faces and their responses to the gospel message motivates corps members to continue this ministry, which features more than 100 costumed actors, musicians, dramatic scenery and lighting, plus live camels, sheep and a donkey.
Offering three performances on an early December weekend, the free event has become so popular reservations are required to ensure seating for the concert, which features members of the Norridge Citadel Band and Songsters interspersed with short dramas and videos followed by an inspiring message and invitation to accept Jesus from the corps officers, currently Captains Michael and Kristina Sjogren.
Since the event’s inception, Peggy Thomas has been the driving force behind the musical content and evangelistic emphasis of the concert. Utilizing gospel art techniques, Peggy keeps the concerts fresh and meaningful. But the grand finale has remained the same due to popular demand. To the majestic strains of “King of kings, Lord of lords” (an excerpt from Kirkland’s God with us), Mary enters the chapel carrying Baby Jesus, trailed by Joseph with the donkey, then a stately parade of magi with their gifts for the Christ-child.
“Three aspects of Come to Bethlehem stand out to me,” said Captain Mike. “First is the number of entire families who come, which I find beautiful and inspirational. Second is the fairly equal percentage of families attending it as their tradition and those attending it for the first time. And, third is the true blessing of seeing our congregation coming together with a unified purpose, doing whatever is needed to make this ministry effective and glorifying to God.”
“I love that people are willing to share their prayer concerns,” said Captain Kristina. “That to me speaks volumes as to how the community values this faith body.” Contact forms collected after guests hear Caesar issue his census proclamation are used for follow up to let neighbors know of other events and ongoing corps programs.
Wes Carter, who’s been managing the production for more than a decade, said, “Virtually everyone who attends the corps is involved in Come to Bethlehem in some way.”
Those who’ve been involved from the start are particularly gratified to see how the event has evolved.
Marjorie Homer, whose husband Ed directed it for many years before his promotion to Glory, said, “It’s rewarding to know the pleasure and joy this event has brought to so many.” Marjorie and her grandsons, Nick and Dylan, are Come to Bethlehem veterans, as are multiple generations of corps families. Children from the community who came each year with their families now as adults bring children of their own, as do former portrayers of Baby Jesus (played by girls some years out of necessity).
Bill and Susan Nash made Come to Bethlehem a family event soon after they married more than 15 years ago and started their family. The couple and their children Kathleen, Liam and Ann-Marie have all held costumed roles, from angels and shepherds to tour guides and Roman guards.
“It’s made the Christmas story real in a way few things could for our children,” said Susan. “The concert finale is so powerful, it brings me to tears every time. I want everyone to be able to experience it.”
After guests enter the corps building, small groups are guided through darkened rooms and hallways to view short dramas, from the angel’s visit to Mary to the Magi’s decision to follow the Eastern Star. Groups then are let loose into the busy, music-filled marketplace where they can buy trinkets and refreshments, enjoy educational and craft activities and pose for pictures with camels before visiting the nativity family in a quiet stable.
Come to Bethlehem was introduced to the corps by Major Elaine Becker, who as a corps officer in Winnipeg staged her nativity event outside. The Norridge version started small under her direction; participants wore bathrobes, sheets and tablecloths and scenery was drawn with crayons, but God honored their efforts. The event grew in popularity and sophistication. Some years saw a bit of drama behind the scenes with sheep escaping into the marketplace or half the cast catching the flu, but God always provided.
“It fills my heart to overflowing to realize the idea I shared so many years ago is still going strong and that so many people have been touched by the gospel message,” said Major Elaine. “The congregation has shown courage and perseverance for the sake of the true Christmas message.”