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Tampa church produces Christmas play to reach unchurched

Tampa church produces Christmas play to reach unchurched

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Tampa church produces Christmas play to reach unchurched

Dec. 14, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0588}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

TAMPA — The birth of Jesus is being celebrated in churches throughout the world, but a church in Tampa decided to rejoice by reaching out to people who don’t know the story of Christ via an original musical developed by the church.

A scene from the play “Born to Die: His Birth Was Just the Beginning.” Photo courtesy of St. James United Methodist Church's Born to Die leadership team. Photo #06-486.

Members of St. James United Methodist Church performed the play “Born to Die: His Birth Was Just the Beginning” Dec. 7-10 at the church. The musical production debuted at the Tampa Palms-area church last year.

The idea for the “Born to Die” story began to take shape during a radio interview for the popular and successful blockbuster motion picture “The Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson. Patina Ripkey, worship and arts leader at the church, heard Gibson say, “He came to earth for one purpose: He was born to die.” That statement sparked the idea for the special production, and Ripkey began working with Zebrah Jahnke, the church’s worship and arts lay leader, to develop the plot.

Soon the group grew to include Jennifer Smith, on staff at the church and co-author of the play, and Karlyle Knox, co-author and narrator. Dwight Loomis joined the team to provide pastoral guidance and theological support. Debbie Harrell wrote five original songs for the production.

The story was developed throughout June and July of 2005. Using the books of Luke and Matthew as texts Smith said she and Knox met every Tuesday and Thursday to pray and write and then share their work with the rest of the team. Rehearsals began later in September.

“From conception, this musical was meant for an audience of non-believers,” Smith said in an e-mail to e-Review. “It was imperative to the creative leadership team to make this musical a tool that the St. James congregation would use to reach those in their community that had not heard about the love of Jesus.”

Divided into two acts, the play follows Jesus’ life from his birth to his death, although it is not depicted. The story is told primarily through the eyes of James, brother of Jesus, and his other brothers. Other key characters include Mary and Joseph.

By giving life to these important supporting characters, the play allows the audience to remember that Jesus was more than a baby born in a manger. He was a son, brother and friend assigned with an awesome task of being savior to the world.

Drawing on Biblical events, the play allows the audience to have a front row seat as James struggles with idea that his brother, Jesus, is not an ordinary man.

One scene features James chastising Jesus for working on the Sabbath by giving sight to a man who had been blind since birth. In another James plots with his brothers to confront Jesus on the way to a feast in Samaria and urge him to leave his disciples whom they think are leading Jesus astray and away from his family ties.

While James grows weary at Jesus’ hard-headed ways, Jesus wrestles with a destiny that must be fulfilled.

An extra Biblical dynamic of the play is that every scene is backed by a scriptural reference that is printed in the program.

The play is a combination of drama intertwined with music provided by a seven-piece band. It runs a little more than two hours with intermission and rivals professional venues in the area.

The Rev. Brian James, pastor of the church, said each time he sees the play he is impressed by its moving story.

A scene from the play “Born to Die: His Birth Was Just the Beginning.” Photo courtesy of St. James United Methodist Church's Born to Die leadership team. Photo #06-487.

“I feel incredibly blessed to be here,” he said after the Dec. 8 performance. “Every time I see it I feel like I have a ringside seat on a miracle. These are incredibly talented actors and musicians who don’t have to do this here, especially during this season, but they want to be a witness.”

James said he admits he was a little surprised when the creators approached him with the idea of a play primarily from the perspective of James, the brother of Jesus.

“They challenged me to set the bar higher,” he said. “We have incredible leaders in this church who push me not to do the average thing.”

While the play was well attended, James said church members are instructed to stay at home — unless they bring a person who does not have a faith community, is struggling with their faith or is a seeker. He said the play is an opportunity to reach adults and for children to realize Christmas is about more than materialistic gifts under the Christmas tree.

Ripkey said she is not aware of anyone who has developed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as a direct result of the play, but it has caused people to rededicate themselves as followers of Jesus Christ.

Molly Dunphey, a member of the church, watched the production with a close friend at her side. She said she prayed that her friend would come to know Christ.

“I saw it last year,” she said after the play, as audience members milled around her. “It’s improved, the cast seems more at ease, since this isn’t their first time, yet I still find it very moving.”

Jean Meyers (left) and Judy Shelley talk after watching “Born to Die” Dec. 8. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-488.

Dunphey said it’s too difficult to name one favorite aspect of the play, but the music has a special place in her heart. “It’s breath-takingly beautiful,” she said.

Equally impressed was Cathy Huffman. Employed at Cornerstone Family Ministries (formerly Tampa United Methodist Centers) in Tampa, Huffman said the play was more than she expected. She said it was “fabulous” and very moving.

Judy Shelley, a member of First United Methodist Church in Allen, Texas, couldn’t agree more. “I got chills just watching it,” she said. “It’s absolutely perfect — especially this time of year.”


This article relates to Advent Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.