The “Road to Bethlehem” starts — and this year could end — in Santa Maria.
The First Baptist Church’s drive-through living Nativity, called the “Road to Bethlehem,” could be hosting its final caravan of cars Saturday through Tuesday.
The church has built its own little version of Bethlehem every Christmas season since 2009, and the drive-through Nativity has hosted thousands of visitors every year since, except once when it was rained out.
But both First Baptist Senior Pastor Jim Schettler and Pastor Paul Shepler, who coordinates the construction of Bethlehem and the production, said the church wouldn’t be doing the Nativity next year. And neither could say when — or if — it would return.
“Our church only runs about 400,” Schettler said of his congregation. “We will use between construction, handing out hot chocolate and parking — because it’s madness coming through the line and everything — we will use about 300 people.”
Schettler, who brought the idea for the event from Florida where he worked for many years before coming to Santa Maria in 2007, said most of the churches that stage such productions have congregations of 4,000 or more.
Doing the Road to Bethlehem year after year has put a lot of miles on Schettler’s small flock each Christmas season.
“We know that we won’t do it next year, but I’ll tell you this, if we don’t do this next year, we’ll be doing something,” Shepler said.
As in previous years, the Road to Bethlehem begins on Santa Maria Way, winds its way through the campus at the First Baptist Church and Valley Christian Academy and ends on College Drive. In the short drive through the church grounds, visitors see the story of Jesus — from the prophesying of his birth through the Resurrection — depicted by close to 200 actors and dozens of animals, including sheep, goats, lambs, donkeys and chickens.
“In the day and age we live in, with all of the commercialization, we just really wanted to bring Christ back into Christmas. So our idea was, ‘Let’s show them the best we can in Central Coast California to present what it was like 2,000 years ago,’” Schettler said. “They get the entire experience of why Christ came to this earth.”
Visitors also get a cup of hot chocolate and use of a CD that narrates on their car’s sound system as they drive along the Road to Bethlehem. Shepler, who has served as the church’s music director for the past six years, has been shepherding the effort since it began in June 2009.
Shepler and his construction volunteers, which number about 16 mostly retired church members, have refined their building techniques over the years, and what once took six months now takes about six weeks.
“This year, we started later than we ever have as far as putting it together, because there’s a comfort level because we’ve done it several times,” Shepler said. “It goes up pretty quickly. This year, we started the first weekend in November.”
Like building Bethlehem each year, making changes to the script or storyline has become easier, too. Shepler said they reuse as much as they can and try to not make too many alterations.
Last year, 6,238 people traveled the Road to Bethlehem. Shepler said he expects similar numbers this year.
One change for 2012 will be an alternate exit. The church will have a makeshift parking lot near the College Drive exit, where visitors can park and visit with church staff.
“We’ve seen many folks join the church over the past few years that before this the only connection they had with it was the living Nativity,” he said. “What will help us is we need people to fill every seat belt in their car. We can only get a certain number of people through here a night, and unfortunately, we do have to close it.”
Shepler said the Road to Bethlehem will definitely be closed next Christmas, but he left open the possibility of it returning in the future.
“I can say conclusively, we won’t be doing it next year,” Shepler said. “It’s a great event. I certainly, as a director, would like to see us do it again.”