116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When 4,000 people arrive in 1,000 cars to see your live Nativity, it's a sign.
A sign that especially during COVID, people are looking for alternative ways to celebrate the most important seasons in the life of the church.
'It had an overwhelming success - more than we ever thought,” the Rev. Paul Hennings said. He's the senior pastor at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Marion, which staged 'The Living Story” drive-by Nativity over three nights in December. 'After the first night, we had to ask police officers to be there to help with the flow of traffic.”
Building on that response, St. Mark's is presenting 'Trail to Tomb” from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday in the church parking lot at 8300 C Ave. Motorists will enter from East Robins Road, and drive by eight scenes depicting the final week of Jesus' life, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with the empty tomb.
'We saw that there's a need in our community to tell these stories of faith in a way that, at least during the pandemic, doesn't require you to be in large social settings,” said Hennings, of Marion. 'Everybody can stay in the comfort of their own car. If they have a cellphone, they can download the audio narration tracks. ...
It works out really slick.”
He'll repeat his role from December.
'I have the fun of helping people figure out their Bluetooth in their ride,” he said. 'We learned a lot about cars this last time.”
If viewers don't have a cellphone, but do have a CD player in their vehicle, the church can supply them with a recorded narration disc.
'If they don't have a CD player or a cellphone, they're a little bit out of luck,” he said. 'We don't have any tape decks.”
St. Mark's members had six months to plan their Christmas event, but just three months to create their Holy Week experience.
The original show, written, built, narrated and enacted by church members, is told from the mother Mary's point of view.
Guests will 'journey with her as she sees what's happening to her son,” Hennings said.
Suitable for all ages, he said it's an emotional ride that begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, then traveling through the week's significant events, including the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Calvary and the empty tomb emitting a bright light. The crosses will be empty, as well.
'We really made it a way that's not scary. We want families to be there, so parents can bring their kids,” Hennings said. 'We made it so that parents can talk to their kids about it.
'So what would be the scary things? Obviously, we don't have blood on Jesus, and gory scenes. I think that would be problematic for younger kids. When Jesus is before Pontius Pilate, we'll have some Roman soldiers there and Jesus is handcuffed - but no scenes of violence or brutality.
”In planning this as quickly as we did, we said, ‘How do we tell this story without truly overdoing all the theatrical aspects of it?'”
All of the church staff was involved, and a core group of about 15 people framed the story, creating an original script with narration and music, from traditional to contemporary, performed by St. Mark's members. Others in the church built the scenery and sewed the costumes, and 75 volunteers will staff the event each night.
As with the Christmas story, where a camel was especially popular, the Easter event will feature live animals, too, including a donkey, and children will receive an Easter gift at the end of the drive.
'We learned so much,” Hennings said of the Christmas event, and those lessons are carrying over to the Easter experience.
'We learned where to set things up in our parking lot. We learned all the technical issues, and how many people will come without cellphone technology. ...
We said, if we're going to do this, we'd better get started on it, and everybody was excited.”
They're welcoming this week's milder temperatures, too.
Christmas was 'really cold,” Hennings noted. 'It was in the teens and low 20s, and we're really looking forward to the weather this time - at least what it's supposed to be. It'll be a little cool the first night, but still much better than Christmastime,” when participants sported modern layers under their ancient attire. 'We had angels with coats on underneath their robes and wings,” he said with a laugh.
The event is designed to appeal to people of other faiths or no faith base or church home, as well as those who celebrate the Easter season.
'I edited the narration, and I really wanted to make sure that we invited people of every background,” Hennings said. 'I didn't want them to get lost in the narration, so we didn't assume a real churchy background. We assume you may have heard of Jesus, you maybe know that this is Christians' Holy Week. We took that as an assumption and tried share the perspective of Jesus' mother, Mary. So really, the narration is a combination of deep emotion and an invitation to feel that emotion.
'It's not a churchy presentation, in my opinion, in the sense that you're not going to drive through this and think, ‘Oh, I feel like I've been in church.' Hopefully, you'll feel like you have traveled with Mary and felt the emotions of losing your son, and at the same time, realizing that he's having to do this because he's the savior of the world.
'Then at the end, we just thank people for coming, and we invite them, if they have any questions, they certainly can ask them,” Hennings said.
'But we're hoping that everybody not only sees and hears the story of this Holy Week, but also hears how much God loves them. They can see that emotion, and go, ‘Wow, God did this for me.' I think that's actually one of the last lines that we have in our narration: ‘This was done for you.'
'Hopefully everybody can hear that and go, ‘I'm glad to hear that this Holy Week.”
And it's all free.
'Our overall reason for doing this, is we just want to bless our community with something safe and family-friendly,” Hennings said. 'Everybody feels like we've moving out of the pandemic, and that's certainly our hope, but I know even at our church, there will be a lot of people who don't come and attend in-person Easter services, and so we wanted to give our community another way to remember this Passion week.”
And while they weren't expecting any donations at the Christmas event, some people wanted to give. If that's the case at this upcoming presentation, Hennings said any donations collected will be given to the Wellington Heights Community Church. Pastors Keeyon and Stephanie Carter launched the multicultural church a month before the pandemic hit last year, and after meeting virtually, they're now looking for a home base.
'We've partnered with them in mutual ministry and support,” Hennings said, especially during cleanup and recovery following the derecho. ' ...
I think the world of Keeyon Carter, and we just look at our partnership as a way to advance the gospel beyond racial and social barriers.”
Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
'Trail to Tomb” drive-by Easter experience
Outside St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 8300 C Ave., Marion; enter the parking lot from East Robins Road; stay in your vehicle the entire time; bring a mobile device to access the audio
5 to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; family-friendly
Eight narration tracks with music, for eight scenes spanning Palm Sunday to Christ's empty tomb; more than 75 volunteers each night; 500 Easter eggs/gifts for children