Southminster Presbyterian celebrating 30 years of ‘Journey to Bethlehem’

Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus in the manager in the final scene of Southminster Presbyterian’s “Journey to Bethlehem.”

For 30 years now, Southminster Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village has put on “Journey to Bethlehem,” a living nativity that takes hundreds of attendees each year through different scenes from the Christmas story.

For 29 of those, Ruth Ann Unruh has been helping navigate.

“Busy life, I missed the first year,” she said Thursday as this year’s cast, more than 100 costumed church members, went through dress rehearsals. “But I got involved the second year. And I’ve been involved every year since.”

Unruh was part of a three woman crew who penned the script that Southminster has now used more than two decades. (The other two women, Unruh notes sadly, have passed away). The church has sent the script she helped write to churches in Florida, California and Minnesota who wanted to start their own “Journey” performances.

But with all her longevity in the event — one of the biggest on Southminster’s calendar — Unruh says she never tires of seeing the Christmas story come to life, or the church members coming together to act out the parts.

“I get to see people in Journey each year that I don’t see all year long in my church life,” she said. “We intersect.”

Last year, more than 500 people went through the performance, and similar numbers are expected this year.

Southminster’s interim associate pastor Karen Wagner said she heard stories about Journey from the moment she first toured the church before her hiring in April. On Thursday, she finally had the chance to go through the performance for her first time.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said, noting that the performance is one of the best intergenerational activities she’s seen, with cast members ranging from early elementary school-age up to their 60s and 70s.

Wagner also said she appreciated that the performance doesn’t sugar coat the Christmas story — including King Herod’s orders to have the newborn king killed.

“There are some parts of it that are scary — you do have the experience of, there was some real danger,” Wagner said. “It’s not this light fluffy Christmas story that we’ve sanitized it to be. I like that there’s that grit. This was a treacherous journey. It was an amazing thing for Christ to be born in a stable, in this unexpected place.””

Southminster will be offering guided performances of “Journey to Bethlehem” Friday from 6-9 p.m. and Saturday from 5-8 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

King Herod hears news of the newborn king from the three wise men.
King Herod hears news of the newborn king from the three wise men.
Peddlers in the Jerusalem market.
Peddlers in the Jerusalem market.
The tax collector sends Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
The tax collector sends Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.