O little town of Gainesville

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The Northern Virginia town of Gainesville and the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem in Israel could not be more different.

To get to Gainesville, the most challenging part is navigating the traffic on Interstate 66. Bethlehem is a bit more complicated; you need to traverse Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints. Mary and Joseph's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago was even more challenging.

For one day this Advent, Dec. 18, Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville will lift people out of their 21st century lives and take them to ancient Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus.

Margi Loesel, Lisa Gogal and Carrie Hall, all friends and parishioners of Holy Trinity, wanted to bring the real meaning of Christmas to Prince William County.

"We are friends who had a vision," said Loesel. "(The Bethlehem Walk) is an active meditation on the Nativity."

Loesel said she got the idea from the Parkwood Baptist Church in Annandale, which has been doing a Bethlehem Walk for about 13 years. She said that Parkwood Church was helpful in getting the trio started on their own walk.

Loesel said they proposed the idea to Father Thomas P. Vander Woude, pastor, and he loved it.

Planning began in June, with fundraisers held in August to cover expenses.

Loesel asked families to make period clothing, plus come up with baskets and clay pots. There are going to be farm animals at the stable. Loesel was hoping she could find parishioners who owned farms, but the logistics of moving animals was daunting. Instead they will rent animals from a petting zoo including lambs, goats, a miniature horse playing the part of a donkey, and an alpaca for a camel.

Most of the displays will be inside in classrooms around the church complex, said Loesel. There will be 17 displays leading up to the Nativity scene, which is outside. The displays will be set up like biblical vendor stalls. Visitors will get gifts like a small clay pinch-pot or a Bible verse written on parchment.

The interactive display will lead groups of 15 to 20 people through at a time, following an introduction by parishioner Tom Heim.

"His introduction will be short, but we thought we should set the stage to make sure folks understand that we want them to enter into the meditation," said Loesel.

She said that Father Vander Woude wanted to ensure that attendees realized that they are passing into a sacred place where Christ is present.

When they enter the site itself, the first visit is to the well, where they will be given an introduction to first-century Judea and coins for the tax collector. At the next stop, walkers will give the coins to a tax collector as a reminder that the Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem for the Roman tax census.

The remaining stops will include vendors like bread-makers and carpenters.

Before the manger scene, visitors will enter a darkened room called "the points of light room" reminiscent of the no room at the inn that greeted Mary and Joseph. There will be music with candles lit to signify the light of the world and scrolls with bible verses.

The last stop is the living Nativity scene. About seven families will rotate in and out with newborns playing the part of the Baby Jesus.

The Bethlehem walk is free.

"This is our gift to the community," said Loesel. "We hope to renew the community. We're trying to make this a family tradition."

Although there are no checkpoints to enter this Bethlehem, Interstate 66 may present a daunting obstacle.

If you go

The Bethlehem Walk will be Dec. 18 from 5 to 9 p.m. at Holy Trinity Church, 8213 Linton Hall Rd., Gainesville, VA. The walk should take about 30 minutes and admission is free.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015