Journey to Bethlehem (via Totley)

Journey to Bethlehem at Totley Rise Methodist Church: Mary (Coralie Corrin) and Joseph (Ken Bryant) with baby Jesus, played by Grace Storey and wise man Peter Wilson
Journey to Bethlehem at Totley Rise Methodist Church: Mary (Coralie Corrin) and Joseph (Ken Bryant) with baby Jesus, played by Grace Storey and wise man Peter Wilson

More than a 1,000 people saw a nativity performance at a Sheffield church complete with real sheep - and babies. David Bocking reports

TWO Marys, one Joseph, three sheep (and associated shepherds), eight wise men, 60 or so assorted dancers, market traders, and caterers, and of course, six babies, in rotation to allow for comfort breaks.

A traditional nativity ensemble – at least that’s the cast list for the Journey to Bethlehem show at Totley Rise Methodist Church.

“The minister brought the script over after seeing it performed in America,” said original cast member Josie Dunsmore. “We had about 20 people working for a week to make the scenery, and it’s evolved from there.”

From the 300 attendees at the first showing 10 years ago to over 1,000 over two performances last weekend, the Totley Rise ‘J2B’ is now said to be bigger than the original inspiration, held in the slightly warmer December environment of El Paso in Texas.

Weather has generally been kind to the Totley cast and congregation, said part-time Magus and member of the organising team Stuart Barlow, with over 800 attending even in the heavy snows a couple of years ago.

Weather-resistant sheep are sourced from local farmer Edwin Pocock, said Stuart, but identifying actors for the part of baby Jesus can be ‘challenging’.

“A lot of the babies come from our pushchair club,” said Totley Rise minister the Reverend Louise Grosberg. “At the club’s Christmas party, the leader usually says: ‘We need babies for the next J2B, so get cracking girls!”

For the last two years, two of the show’s Mary actors have taken the role very seriously, and have ‘obliged’ with their own babies. It can cause confusion, however.

Louise said: “At one finale, a little girl came up to Mary, and said what did you call him? ‘Mary’ had to think for a moment, but managed to say ‘Jesus’ instead of ‘Daniel’”.

The show differs from the traditional nativity by taking small groups of people around to view seven scenes from the story, led by a member of the Magi team. A visit to the astronomers is followed by Mary’s visitation by the Angel Gabriel, then her meeting with cousin Elizabeth, a trip to the innkeeper, the local marketplace, the shepherds by the fire and finally the stable, with a living and breathing baby.

“Having a real baby gives it the ‘wow’ factor,” said Louise.

“So often these days people miss what Christmas is all about. There’s all this glitter all around, and yet people can just pass by that quite humbling story. I think this show helps people to pause and think about this baby that came amongst us, and out of love gave his life for us.”

After 10 years, the show will take a sabbatical next year, said Louise, so the cast can have a rest and reflect on how Journey to Bethlehem might be staged in future.

The 1,100 audience members travelled this year from all over South Yorkshire, and even from as far away as York, and over the years Totley Rise J2B has even inspired other churches around the country to stage similar performances.

Many of the attendees are not regular churchgoers, Louise said, and they come because they feel a need to return to the original story, albeit for a short time.

“I think it helps them think about love for one another. The aim is that they may feel something of the love of Christ even if it just touches them while they’re here. I understand we live in a hectic world, and I think society these days puts loads of wrappers over the word of Christmas, and I long for them to understand something about that gift of love.

“People often come because they want their families to understand there is a Christmas, even if by Christmas Eve it’s all wrapped up again with tin foil and wrapping paper.”