April 16, 2014

Members of Seventh Day Adventist Church in Dracut Play out the Events of Christ's Death and Resurrection

The following story, written by DEBORAH HOVANESIAN, is reprinted with permission from The Sun of Lowell.

If the current best seller about Jesus Christ, "Killing Jesus" by Bill O'Reilly, or the many Hollywood films -- "Son of God," "Noah," and the future "Resurrection," "Exodus," "The Redemption of Cain," and "Mary, Mother of Christ" -- are any indication, there is a growing interest, even a thirst, for Bible-based stories.

In Dracut on Saturday, Holy Saturday of the Christian Holy Week, one of the most familiar of those stories, the final days in the life of Jesus Christ, will be dramatized both inside and outside a church on Broadway Road, Route 113 -- the Seventh Day Adventist Church of the Merrimack Valley.

Three heavy wooden crosses now stand outside the church, the future site of the Crucifixion scene. Inside the church, volunteers work tirelessly on Jesus' tomb, a platform with pillars and marble walls for the temple and dozens of realistic costumes that evoke the Holy Land some 2,000 years ago.

This is the third year the church has offered the interactive walk-through dramatization, "The Journey," so they've got the ancient drill mastered. They've even added to the sets and costumes each year, said Pastor Matthew Vixie.

"My intent for this project was for people to get a real sense of the gift of Salvation and what Jesus did to save us from sin," Vixie said.

All are welcome to one of four presentations of "The Journey" on Saturday, April 19: 11 a.m., and 1:30, 2:30, or 3:30 pm. Judging by the audience reactions the previous two years, expect tears at the Crucifixion scene, clapping and joy at the Resurrection, and surprise by audience members who, as part of an ancient caravan, are encouraged to evoke the emotions of the day.

Besides the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the walk-through scenes include the Jerusalem Marketplace, Temple, Gethsemane, Pilate's Judgment Hall, and Walk to the Cross.

In the marketplace, run primarily by teen members of the church, the "caravan" is encouraged to try the delicacies of ancient Jerusalem, like olives and honey.

After the previous dramatizations, "people were on their cell phones calling their friends and telling them to come down to Dracut for one of the other presentations," Vixie said.

Since most of the dramatization takes place outside in the church parking lot, audience members are encouraged to dress for the weather, including rain.

Vixie, pastor for three years, was inspired to bring "The Journey" to Dracut after participating in a much larger dramatization in 1996 on the campus of Southern Adventist University in Tennessee, where he attended college.

That was so large, drawing 10,000 people, that three separate dramatizations took place simultaneously over a two-mile stretch of campus.

Vixie and church members wrote a script on a smaller scale, while other church members, including Vixie's wife, Heather, offered their talents and expertise in sewing, acting (including young children), set design and construction, artwork and even baking cookies.

"We're blessed to be able to do this while blessing the community at the same time," said Chali Davis, who leads the caravans through the walk-through and encourages audience interaction. "I feel by being part of this, it gives us the opportunity to help others see God's gift to us."

"We're fortunate to have a lot of talent here, so it doesn't look amateurish," said Dale Jacobson, a church elder, the primary set builder, and the high priest, Caiaphas, in "The Journey."

Out of the church's 175 members, 70 take part in the dramatization, "and just about all the rest take part in some way. It's all hands on deck," said Davis.

Organizers credit the realistic look of the sets to Veronica Iria, an art student at UMass Lowell. She leads a team of volunteers decorating the sets. Organizers have also been sticklers about keeping it accurate to scripture, Vixie said.

Unlike the Roma Downey film, "Son of God," which left Satan on the cutting room floor, Satan does make an appearance in Dracut. He's not too popular, but he is part of the story, said Vixie, who lives in Pelham with his wife and two sons.

Jesus is portrayed by Haverhill resident and church member Fermin Peralta, now for the third year.

"He has a beautiful voice for the part," Davis said, while Jacobson adds that, "he really looks the part."

Children are especially riveted with Jesus, they added. Some have asked to meet him afterward.

"He's great with that, too," said Vixie. "He plays the part perfectly."

The dramatization "makes it visual -- more powerful than words. It's about sights and feelings. We hope it is a renewal for people, that it rekindles a fire in their hearts," Jacobson said.

Chelmsford's Joan Reiss, Sabbath school teacher and coordinator of the event's Punch and Cookies, sees all the "caravan members" just after, emotions and all. They often tell her they feel like they were really there in the Holy Land, she said.

"You look at the world around us and you know that people need something that is real, not something imagined," said Reiss. "That is what they get here."

Merrimack Valley SDA Church, 408 Broadway Road, Dracut; www.mvsda.org or 978-454-9226. Admission is free.