The bowl of ragged hillside resembled a WW I battlefield in December daylight.
Muddy rutted paths and trenches led between plywood structures cobbled together like hobo shelters. Strands of old electric wire sagged between creosote poles, connecting the ramshackle open sheds and lean-toes. Frost-blasted weeds and stunted trees rattled in the sharp north wind that cut through the little farm.
Bro. Leroy Simmons’ face and hands were chapped red from the outdoor labor of love he performed in the weeks running up to Christmas. The old man – in his 80s the last time I visited – wore a light jacket and pair of thin blue coveralls, but seemed oblivious to the cold.
He gazed across the natural amphitheater, not seeing the crazy quilt of rocky slopes covered in thickets or the cobbled-together backdrops meant to depict scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. Bro. Leroy was peering a few days into the future, when hundreds of spectators would crowd the farm to witness a live nativity and more.
Unlike static manger scenes during the Christmas season, his project was a dramatic performance with actors, live animals (he raised sheep), and music.
With nightfall, the scene would be transformed. Twinkling stars overhead, illumination (albeit not always reliable due to the age of the wiring), and narration written and recited by the good lay pastor himself via a borrowed PA system, told the story of Christ from birth to Resurrection.
Now you’re probably thinking there was nothing particularly noteworthy about a live nativity. You’d be wrong. Bro. Leroy had been staging the annual event for many years before I interviewed him in the 1970s for a newspaper article.
It started, he explained, with a call from the Lord. He looked at the raw hillside -- final resting place of rusty trucks and tractors -- and beheld instead Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Golgotha. He dreamed of shepherds among their flock of sheep, kneeling before an angel. The manger. The Wise Men. Three crosses, and grieving women finding an empty tomb.
As best he could, Bro. Leroy set out to turn his vision into a ministry celebrating the real reason for the season. Much of the money for the production came from his own pocket at first. Later local businesses and the community pitched in to help.
As editor of the newspaper, it was my duty to promote what came to be known simply as “The Nativity.” Bro. Leroy visited my office in November, sat down across the desk, and solemnly reported the dates and times of performances, names of actors, and special guests. The latter often included political figures and celebrities.
It was quite a coup when the state’s first Republican governor, a primitive Baptist preacher, appeared in the role of Simeon at the Temple. This also resulted in a memorable kerfuffle when a big city newspaper reporter (not me or mine) grabbed the doll from the manger, thrust it into the governor’s hands, and shouted: “Here, Governor. Hold Baby Jesus for a photo!”
When I last met Bro. Leroy, many years had passed since my association with the local newspaper. I was on assignment to do a story about the long-running Christmas performance for a magazine. This was in the late 1990s.
The old man confided that, health-wise, he didn’t have too many years left. He was still the main piston in the engine of the ministry. But backdrops, props, costumes, and electrical wiring were falling apart due to age and use. Donations needed to help stage the performance had gradually dwindled. Volunteers were fewer, and the crowds were sparse.
Bro. Leroy, who used his farm for tent revivals before “The Nativity” became his main ministry, shaded his eyes from the sun’s glare and gestured to the hillside where the story of Christ was portrayed on red clay and rock-strewn slopes covered in scrub growth. To him the landscape was not ugly; rather, his vision portended a beautiful transformation over thousands of miles and years into the holy ground trod by mankind’s Savior.
All that was required was a cold dark night, a bright star in the east, and the words recited over a tinny loudspeaker: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”