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Nativity is holiday tradition
At McCabe Memorial Baptist Church
Click to Enlarge
Kelly and Jennifer Custer portray Joseph and Mary in a live nativity scene at McCabe Memorial Baptist Church. The church has presented the nativity for at least 60 years, according to church members. (Bulletin photo by MIke Wray)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

There’s a joke about a Yankee who visited a live nativity scene in the South asking why the three wise men wore fire helmets.

A Southern woman jerked open her Bible and responded, “See, it says right here, ‘The three wise men came from afar.’”

Martinsville firefighter Bennie Gray has portrayed a wise man, among other Biblical characters, at McCabe Memorial Baptist Church’s annual nativity scene — a tradition spanning at least 60 years.

And no, he doesn’t wear a fire helmet at the nativity.

Gray is serious about participating in the live nativity.

“It’s a tradition that shows our faith in Jesus — to be able to show it publicly,” Gray said. “I just feel like it’s part of being a member of the (McCabe) church.”

Gray, who grew up attending McCabe, has been participating in the live nativity about 50 of his 57 years, either helping set it up or portraying one of the characters — “most times either a shepherd, wise man or Joseph,” Gray said.

“When I was a kid, they would build it (the stable) from slabs from a lumber yard,” he said. A slab is the outside piece cut from a log when squaring it for lumber.

For about the last 30 years, church members have made the stable from prefab panels, he added.

Fred Martin, a member of the church that is located at 107 Clearview Drive, always provides livestock — “most times, several donkeys and several sheep,” Gray said.

“Three or four years ago, one of the donkeys got loose,” and it took a couple people probably 30 to 45 minutes to retrieve it, Gray said.

Over the years, he said, “We had some very cold winters.” One year the church canceled the event when the temperature was in the low teens or lower, he said.

“There’s always a good response” to the live nativity from the viewing public, he said. Some people honk their car horns. Some people park their vehicles “and come and talk to you,” Gray said. Sometimes groups from other churches and others come to sing Christmas carols to the cast of the live nativity, and sometimes cast members join in, he said.

“Some folks from other churches come and sit in the nativity scene” sometimes, he said.

“Kids love it (the live nativity) most. It’s good for them to see the animals and see us out there,” Gray said.

Gray enjoyed it when he was a child, and after he grew up, his two children did too and were participants themselves growing up, he said. Even today, “If they are here, I try to get them involved,” he said of his children, son Stafford Gray, who lives in the Richmond area, and daughter Amanda Gray of Martinsville. Amanda, the marketing director at the Smith River Sports Complex, played Mary one recent year, said Cindy Gray, Bennie’s wife.

Though Cindy, 51, has been affiliated with McCabe only about 12 years, her memories of the church’s annual live nativity date to when she was a girl and her parents, Sam and Becky Eanes of Figsboro, would take her and her three siblings to see it every year. “I do not remember not seeing it,” Cindy said when asked how many years she saw it when she was growing up.

“It was exciting for us. It shows the beginning of the Christmas season. I knew it represented Christ the Savior,” she said.

When Cindy had children of her own, “I took them to McCabe to see the nativity, also,” she said. Her sons are Matthew Rorrer, a teacher at Bassett High School, and Philip Rorrer, who is in the Navy and was on his way to Missouri to be stationed in Springfield, Cindy said last week.

Most years, the live nativity has run three or four nights, and the last few years, the church also has put up wooden figures of nativity characters for several weeks, according to Bennie and Cindy Gray.

Church members hand-made and painted the figures, said Cindy, who organizes the live nativity as part of her duties as the church’s adult Sunday school director.

This year, the live nativity was Dec. 20, 21 and 23 from 6-7:30 p.m., Cindy said. At least 20 people participated, she added.

“This year, we have two spotted donkeys,” Cindy said Saturday. “We have a lot of children who come by to see the animals. We allow the children to pet them.”

“The donkeys like peppermint,” she added.

What about the two-legged visitors?

“We have hot chocolate and cookies (for them) ... in the conference room in the church basement,” Cindy said.

On Friday night, about 10 vehicles stopped and the people got out and spoke to the nativity cast, Cindy said. “We have a lot that will slow down and blow (their horns) or they’ll yell, ‘Merry Christmas!’ It’s really nice.”

“I absolutely enjoy it, knowing we are putting the message (about Jesus’ birth) out there. We are sharing it with everyone,” Cindy said.

“The church has been doing it about 60 years. I cannot imagine the area not having it,” she added.

The unmanned nativity set and its wooden figures will remain up through the end of the year, she said.


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