By Linda Linonis

The live Nativity is a treasured 30-year tradition that the congregation presents as a community outreach.

The Nativity at Zion Luth- eran Church in Cornersburg brings the story of Christ’s birth to life for both cast and spectators.

This season marks the 30th year for the live Nativity presented in the front of the church at 3300 Canfield Road. Shows are scheduled at 5:30, 6, 6:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday. The shows and soup-and-sandwich supper are free.

“It helps people understand what the Christmas story is all about,” said Tom Gent of the Nativity. “It gets you closer to the experience of Christmas ... as part of it or seeing it.”

Gent, a church member since 1957, has been involved with the Nativity since 1979 and director for five years.

As a tribute to its beginning three decades ago, Gent said he is using an old Fred Waring album as the musical backdrop. “For the first 10 to 12 years, the Waring music was used,” Gent said, noting that other music has been played throughout the years. The music includes such selections as “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” “We Three Kings” and “What Child is This.” Gent also noted that the album features a narration and readings from Scripture.

“The Nativity was started as a community outreach at Christmas,” Gent said. He said the audience ranges from 200 to 350 people.

“We invite anyone in the congregation to participate,” Gent said, and that continues to the present. “If we have 10 or 20 kids who want to be angels, that’s what we have.”

The cast numbers about 35 or so and with the crew for lights, sound and “backstage,” the number is about 40. Gent said he puts the word out in mid-October about the production for members to sign up. The roles are Mary and Joseph, Three Wise Men, King Herod, Angel Gabriel, innkeeper’s wife, angels and shepherds. Gent said he has been in all the roles except Mary and the innkeeper’s wife.

The production has no dialogue but does have narration. “It’s walking to a soundtrack,” Gent said. But, he noted that he wanted the Three Kings to “walk royally,” shepherds to guide the flock and angels to flap their wings. Gent said he tries to encourage new members to get involved. “The smallest shepherd gets to kneel and give the baby Jesus a blanket,” he said. “And the three kings present their gifts.” By the finale, the whole cast is gathered around the manger.

“It’s live theater and we have live animals ... so anything can happen,” Gent said.

Attesting to that is Scott LaVange, who is known as the “llama man.” He’s been a church member for five years and been involved in the production. “It’s a 50-50 shot that the llama will be in the right position,” he said. “One year, the llama stepped on my costume and I was stuck,” LaVange said. He said finally got the animal to move and caught up with his fellow “wise men.”

Gent and LaVange credited Bev Converse, also a member, with providing the animals that include llamas, sheep, pony, donkey and goats. The shepherds lead the sheep, who are on leashes.

The winter weather also has put the production in various stages of a deep freeze. All but one production has been presented outdoors. “It was moved indoors one year when we had a heavy downpour,” said Vicki Riggle, who has handled the costumes for some 20 years. “Last year, there was horizontal snow,” LaVange said, but the show went on. Gent said the weather factor prompted the use of two casts so that participants aren’t in inclement conditions for long.

“The Nativity tells the story of Christmas,” LaVange said. “It’s about self-reflection and isn’t commercial. I hope people get something out of it to be a better person.”

Vicki Riggle, who was baptized at the church, said she and her husband, Dave, were asked to portray Mary and Joseph one year and that’s how they got involved. “The season isn’t complete without it,” she said. “This is a major tradition at the church.”

A supplementary but tasty part of the event is a soup-and-sandwich supper served while the Nativity shows go on. “It’s great fellowship,” said Riggle.

“The women of the church bring pots of vegetable soup. It’s all put into one pot ... and tastes great,” Gent said. The church also offers sandwiches, cookies and hot beverages.

“When the cast comes into Alber Hall, they get a standing ovation,” Gent said. “People really seem to love the Nativity. It never gets old.”

And this year, another dimension has been added through the use of American Sign Language. Pat Maille, a church member who is an interpreter with Youngstown Community Center for the Deaf, will be signing the presentation.

“I was looking for a way to help the church and this also helps the deaf community,” she said.

Maille described the Nativity as a “very visual presentation” but she will sign the narration and provide the sign that signals songs.

“The deaf community is out there. This is the season to be helpful and share the word through this ministry.”

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