Friday, December 23, 2011

TOP STORY >> Road to Bethlehem

Leader staff writer

The Bethlehem United Methodist Church’s “Road to Bethlehem” embodies the spirit of an angelic woman who put her heart and soul into it.

Larry Nipper, who is in charge of the well-known trail, said it was one of his wife’s projects. That selfless woman, Jeaneane Nipper, passed away three years ago from pancreatic cancer. He was pastor of the church for nine years before he retired in June 2008 at age 73 to take care of his wife.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the 36 displays featuring nearly 200 lighted, life-sized and hand-painted figures from the story of the birth of Jesus located at homes along a four-mile stretch of Bethlehem Road in Lonoke County. It is lighted every night from dusk until 11 p.m. and it runs from Dec. 1 through New Year’s Eve.

The project began with just a few displays at the church and no signs. Signs with Biblical quotes are now included with every display.

“Vanloads” of people from Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi and other states come regularly to see the Biblical figures and Bible verses that tell the story of the nativity, Nipper said. As many as a thousand cars will travel down the road at the same time.

One day in the third or fourth year for the project, his wife walked into the church with tears rolling down her cheeks, Nipper said.

He asked what was wrong and she explained, “Nothing is wrong. We just got paid for all our work here.”

She had just seen a woman with eight grandchildren telling them the story of the Savior’s birth using the displays as examples.

“I was married to an angel for 53 years. She devoted her life to the love of Jesus Christ. This was a tremendous thing she did,” Nipper said.

But he wanted to emphasize that without the support of the whole community since its beginnings, the road would not be what it is today.

The displays were a family affair, too. Jeaneane’s brother, Billy Davis, drew patterns for the figures on paper.

Nipper, 76, used to take his wife to Branson, Mo., every year to relax after the road was done, because the project would wear her down. On one occasion, they went to a church service there and the pastor, who preaches to 600 people hundreds of miles from Lonoke, was greeting people as they left.

He asked the Nippers where they were from and as soon as they said a church off Bethlehem Road in Arkansas, he exclaimed, “The Christmas Road to Bethlehem.” He had been there to see the displays.

“It’s rewarding for a little country church to have something this well known,” Nipper said.

The cost to put up the displays, which require steel posts to hold them up, electricity bills, fixtures, wires and other expenses come to about $2,000.

The church raises that money through donations and its annual spaghetti supper, which is held on the last Saturday of September. Nipper said it usually has enough to cover the cost of the road.

“We get rewarded. It’s a lot of work. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it. We do get rewarded when we see how it affects people, especially children,” Nipper said.

“You make the trip and it tells the story. That is one of the beautiful things about it. It’s very rewarding how it puts the Christmas story over to people, especially children, especially teenagers.”

Volunteers do all the labor that is required.

Among the challenges every year are how many volunteers come out to work and weather conditions.

There weren’t very many volunteers this year, compared to times in the past.

But Nipper said the ground was really soft from all the rain this year, and that made it easier to drive in the stakes that support the figures.

The trail is not the only thing the church does for Christmas.

It hosted special programs, from Dec. 11 to Dec. 17.

Those nights included a re-enactment of the Christmas story by members of the Lonoke Council on Aging and performances by southern gospel/Christian country musicians Glen and Leigh Ann Pool, Hickory Hill Bluegrass Band of Beebe, Cabot’s Hallelujah Harmony Quartet and the Gospel Tones of Jacksonville.

Local talent from the church and the community performed one night that week.

Refreshments were served after each program.

Nipper said he is still managing the annual displays, but is looking for someone else to take over.