Hundreds of children and their parents walked through the dark and found a spot on a long stone wall along Manoa Road, under a dripping canopy of huge trees, to be transported back in time to a stable in Bethlehem — where a baby was born to Mary and Joseph in a manger, surrounded by animals, angels, shepherds and three wise men.
"It’s like a taste of heaven," watching one of the most beloved Bible stories come to life in the Salvation Army’s annual live Nativity pageant, said Jan Young, a retired Salvation Army chaplain, who started the production 28 years ago.
It’s a blessing for participants as well as the families that come every year, some of them for three generations, she said. Some 300 to 800 people trooped through each night from Tuesday through yesterday, taking turns sitting on the stone wall fronting Waioli Tea Room on Manoa Road. The pageant — using music, dance and sign language to tell the story — was repeated every half-hour from 7 to 10 p.m.
A stage light dressed as the Star of Bethlehem illuminated the straw-covered stage, set on a lush hillside below the tea room. A full moon, sitting low in an open patch of rain clouds, was part of the audience on opening night.
Nearly 30 years ago Young read a story in Reader’s Digest about a motley crew of school kids re-enacting the story of Jesus Christ’s birth. She spent a year persuading others in the Salvation Army to stage their own pageant because "you could see the participants drawing some sort of spiritual or meaningful thing from it, as well as those who came. It’s the meaning of Christmas. … It’s one night when everybody, all different people, (perhaps) with different languages — it’s our chance to join together as brothers and sisters.
"I believe with all my heart it was a God thing," she said, especially after she heard from her sister how much it meant to a lonely couple, far from home, who happened to drive by the first year.
Young recalled the time a man, depressed and suicidal, asked for counsel. She spent two hours talking with him, and that night he played a king in the play. He still comes by occasionally to say hi, she said. Another year a police officer, shaken after shooting a criminal suspect that day, was urged by his supervisor to "just go by and watch" the pageant.
"I always tell the cast they need to do their best because you never know who’s going to be out there," Young said. It’s also a balm for the participants, who include a few receiving treatment at the Salvation Army’s addiction rehabilitation programs.
"One time a man asked if he could be an angel," although older men were not usually cast in that role, and "he was also toothless," she said. "I said, ‘Why not?’
"He was wonderful! There was something about him. We could tell in his face and his movements" that he knew what he was doing and was deeply touched by the moment, she said. Young later learned the man had once been a minister, and she hoped the play marked a turning point for him.
Young said it’s been great working with husband Gordon and the same people since the beginning: Clarence and Jennie Ing with son Ernie; Lawrence, Bea, Al and Linda Orion; and Sam Abella.
The Salvation Army is a Methodist-based church which worships at four corps or missions on Oahu. Call 988-2136 for locations.