By Sarah Colson
In a small room in the middle of Central Baptist Church in Johnson City, there is just one story being told—the birth of Jesus—but it’s being told in 120 different ways from all over the world through the church’s annual Nativity display. One can find bearded wise men from Germany, banana leaf figures from Africa, and baby Jesus in a hammock from Southeast Asia displayed side-by-side in a way that reminds viewers what the season is really all about.
For Linda Arnold, tour guide and longtime member of Central Baptist, the Nativity display is a way the church can give back to the Johnson City community. Central Baptist Church is offering free guided tours from now until Dec. 22 on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“I’ve been here for so many years I can’t remember,” Arnold said. “I’ve been here a long, long time. That first year, we only had seven Nativities out.”
Now, after 17 years of displaying the Advent Nativity scenes, the 120 scenes vary in size, material and cultural representation. For the past three years, Bucky Farnor has designed the room to give it more of a holiday feel. Stars hang from the ceiling and billowing burgundy drapes accompany the figures, which all vary in size.
“There are so many different materials,” Arnold said, “wood, metal, fabric, clay, china, resin, glass, corn shucks, coconut, banana leaves, mother of pearl. Each one tells a story.”
Arnold said it all started with just one missionary back in 1997 who was retiring from a lifetime career in Japan. The church leadership realized that it might benefit the church and community to figure out a way to display different artifacts collected from longtime missionaries and short-term trip goers alike. After discussing and planning for a year, the first Advent display opened the next year.
“We had four more missionaries on the field near retirement age so we felt like we needed a room,” Arnold said. “We were also going out and taking mission trips each year. We needed a hub in the church we could use year round for missionary projects and artifacts from the mission field.”
The Nativities represent people groups from all around the world and most of them, Arnold said, are directly related to missions in one way or another. There are collections from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Americana-Folk Art, as well as some contemporary pieces.
“Each Nativity depicts the characters like the way people in that culture would see it,” Arnold said. “The Southeast Asia one has pigs, water buffalo, elephants and Jesus in a little hammock because that’s where they put their babies. You can see the culture in the expressions of the faces and the ways they’re carved and painted.”
Each Nativity scene displays figures with unique facial expressions, which Arnold says speaks volumes to how that culture understands the birth of Christ.
“If you’ll look at the little faces, they really have personalities and there are just so many things they’re made from,” she said. “The way the cultures perceive and interpret the Christmas story is what’s so interesting to me but if you go around and study the facial expressions, they’re just all so different.”
With the Nativity display now a strong church tradition, Arnold says members now pick up Nativity scenes from all over the world to keep adding to the collection.
“Some of them are just given as gifts of love from people who see the room and they come across a really unique one,” Arnold said.
Dr. Tommy Hood, senior pastor at Central Baptist Church, said the Nativity display does an excellent job of promoting the church’s seasonal motto: “Keep telling the story.”
“The Nativity display has a global dimension to it,” he said, “reminding us that the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people. The advent of Christ truly does bring ‘joy to the world.’”
For church groups, appointments can be made by calling (423) 926-7121.