The Mohawk haircut on the shepherd gave it away. This wasn’t going to be a typical Christmas nativity depiction.
Mary was a young African-American girl. Joseph was a Caucasian boy. Baby Jesus was a young African-American child on loan from the audience. One of the wise men had a full head of hair; the other was bald. There was no donkey in the stable, just a young goat. The microphone didn’t always work.
This was a Delta Christmas, the annual dinner, shopping spree and mini-pageant at the Helena Community Center. It was the fifth such event, part of a mission outreach to the Arkansas delta by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Together for Hope partnership, an aspect of a CBF mission outreach to the poorest counties in America.
To get to the small community center, tucked in a neighborhood with several rundown houses, you have to drive past at least three pawn shops, several closed gas stations and fast-food restaurants and a few demolished buildings.
But inside the center, the atmosphere was rich — a growing success story that CBF missionaries Ben and Leonora Newell have watched blossom in rocky soil right before their eyes.
About 200 of the neediest families in the community were invited to the dinner, Christmas presentation and shopping event on Saturday, Dec. 13. In its first year, about 90 percent of the multitude of volunteer workers came from out-of-town, CBF-affiliated churches. This year, at least 80 percent of the volunteers were local: from Helena and the Phillips County area.
And the volunteers crossed community and ecumenical boundaries. They were from the Kiwanis Club, the local Catholic church, the City of Helena Fire Department and Parks and Recreation Department, a local Episcopal church, the local United Methodist church, a couple of Missionary Baptist churches and youth groups from the Helena-West Helena school system, and at least two local banks.
There were workers from several non-denominational churches, including one that was recently built in the neighborhood (the first new building in that neighborhood in more than a decade) by CBF volunteer workers from several states. There was a busload of volunteers from Second Baptist in Little Rock, about 2 ½ hours away. Another busload of young people arrived from First Baptist in Trumann, Ark., a two-hour drive.
They bonded with smiles and Santa hats.
Helping sponsor the operation financially and with donations of food and gifts were local retail stores and churches in Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.
“What we are about is serving other people,” Ben Newell said, addressing the volunteers 15 minutes before the doors opened. “This is about loving other people, and that takes it to another level.”
A volunteer host guided each family (some with seven to nine people) through various interactive stations that included a book shop, card shop, craft shop, candy shop, music shop (for the singing of Christmas songs) and a photo shop (where young children and teen-agers could receive a framed digital photo of themselves with Mary and Joseph).
Families had to visit each station and have a card punched before they were allowed to receive Christmas presents at two other stations: one where children could shop for their parents, and the other where parents could shop for their children. Money and gifts for the shopping spree came from sponsors, which are increasing each year.
Families participated in two “workshops” as well: one to help create book packages for young children in other community organizations, and another to make Christmas cards for senior citizens at a nursing home.
Each family also received a desk or floor lamp donated through the Lights for Literacy program in Little Rock, which places lamps and educational materials in needy homes.
The highlight was the youth and children’s interpretation of the Christmas story. Just outside the community center, accessed by a large pull-up door, was a small stable constructed by Ben Newell. It housed a small goat.
The stable scene was imperfect. Some of the characters stumbled over their lines. Not everyone understood what was going on. There were noise and distractions in the background. The volunteers were getting weary.
But as the audience began singing “Joy to the World,” and as Mary began rocking Baby Jesus, something magical happened in that makeshift stable scene.
Several curious kids, some wearing Santa or reindeer hats, spontaneously crowded about the scene, upstaging the shepherds and the wise men. “Where’d the goat go?” one asked.
“Shhh,” said another. “Look at Baby Jesus.”
And “Baby Jesus” smiled. Big smile. A smile of joy.
Two more moments defined the evening.
At the close of the program, the cast came forward for a bow. As the characters rushed to the front, a friend shouted to Mary, “Don’t forget Jesus. He’s the main character. Take him up there!”
And as the evening wound down, a couple hundred boxes of lamps were stacked just outside the door of the community center, waiting for weary volunteers to bring them in. But as the process developed, a group of small boys suddenly appeared at the door and began grabbing boxes twice their height and bringing them into the building.
Several times, workers tried to relieve the youngsters of their load, but they were usually waved off. The kids insisted on helping.
So, “Baby Jesus” was brought to center stage and those who were served became servants.
In an unorthodox way under a full moon, the essence of the Christmas story was illuminated that Saturday night in the impoverished, much-maligned, crime-ridden Arkansas delta.
It was non-descript and not extravagant; but it was glorious.
David McCollum, a member of SecondBaptistChurch, Little Rock, is a columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat newspaper in Conway, Ark.