Christmas in July?

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Rena Crocker is the Executive Director of the GreenHouse and the former Associate Pastor of Church Without Walls. Read her reflections on living out “the best” Christmas pageant ever. Photo and article courtesy of the GreenHouse.

When the idea first came up this spring, it sounded relatively straight-forward.

“Let’s put on a play this summer,” suggested Pastor Dave Lindner, GreenHouse Board member, volunteer staff, community pastor, soccer coach, and drama teacher extraordinaire. “I know just the one – we’ll do a ‘Christmas in July’ theme. It’s called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

If you’ve never read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, it’s worth checking out. It’s about a family of six rambunctious kids – the Herdmans – who steal lunches, wham other kids on the playground, and generally wreak havoc around their town. One day the Herdmans find their way to Sunday School – mainly for the free dessert – and hear about the annual Christmas Pageant, where they end up cast as Mary, Joseph, and all the main characters of the nativity play. The Herdmans, who have never heard the Christmas story before, bring fresh eyes to the familiar narrative, and the chaos that ensues is hysterical, profound, and deeply resonant with the true meaning of Christmas.

It’s a wonderful story, with fun, creative parts for all ages. A great fit for the GreenHouse, right? So in May we held auditions, and in June began rehearsal, for a July 13 performance date.

As rehearsals began, it became quickly apparent that putting on this play might not be so straightforward after all. Almost none of our students had ever been in a play before. Some of our younger actors struggled to read, so learning lines was difficult. Rehearsals were moderate chaos – kids were in and out, squirming, playing with props, arguing over costumes, pounding drum beats on the wall when they were supposed to be quiet backstage. Many of the kids were hearing the Christmas story for the first time. In other words, we were the Herdmans, putting on a play about the Herdmans.

But amidst the chaos, something began to emerge – a community using its gifts, talents, and time to make something meaningful together. Parents, volunteers and staff stepped in to play various supporting roles, and gifted actors from local and not-so-local communities drove in to play lead parts. Folks donated for the set, lent costumes, brought donuts, rehearsed lines with young students. And little by little, the students began to catch the excitement of the production: learning lines, developing characters, projecting their voices, learning about blocking. You could feel excitement and ownership building, like a small tender shoot amidst the noise.

Finally, July 13 arrived. In true form, things were precarious to the end. Just before the performance began, everyone needed to go to the bathroom – and we discovered that both GreenHouse bathrooms were locked, with no key. Pastor Dave came as close as I’ve ever seen to pulling out what remains of his hair. But by some miracle the bathroom doors got opened, costumes were assembled, everyone arrived… and then it was showtime. The GreenHouse rendition of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever began.

One by one, our young actors, suddenly subdued and serious, came out and stood before a full house of parents, younger siblings, community members, and crying babies. As folks cheered and filmed and smiled, something beautiful happened. Students got into character as they never had before. They remembered their lines, or helped each other subtly when someone forgot one. A student who swore he’d never sing in public sang a solo in the opening scene – with his eyes closed, but he did it. A seven year old got the biggest chuckle of the night with a comedic line, and then a second one when his whole face lit up at having made the audience laugh. Several GreenHouse parents made their stage debuts alongside their kids, in both English and Spanish, hamming it up and bringing delight to all who watched.

By the end of the performance, I felt that I’d witnessed something holy. The Christmas story is about “God with us” – Jesus, born as a gift to the world. That holy presence didn’t arrive in some kind of prestigious, well-organized way, but rather through the birth of a child to migrant parents in poverty. In other words, holiness was born right in the mess of real life. Through this play, God came like that to dwell among us. Was the process chaotic and often maddening? Absolutely. Were there moments when we genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen? Many. But God met us, giving the faith to keep going, and the support of a generous community that jumped in to help. And in that process, as GreenHouse kids, staff, volunteers, and parents worked together to put on this play, something holy was born, and we were all the richer for it.

We want to thank the MANY people who participated, in all kinds of ways. Without your support, The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever would have been no Christmas pageant at all. Truly, it takes a village.

Thanks to…

  • Darlene from Church Without Walls, whose warm and witty portrayal of Grace anchored our whole performance – and who drove to and from Berkeley four times to rehearse and perform with us. What a gift!
  • Asa from Sacramento Waldorf School, who memorized his part in a day, did a fabulous job as Bob, and was a true role model for other young actors
  • Julia, GreenHouse Grad and Summer Staff, who narrated the whole play with such grace, and also served as an inspirational role model for younger actors
  • Kim, Danny, and Jacob from Church Without Walls, who good-naturedly jumped in, played whatever parts we needed (sometimes changing day by day), and wore multiple different hats (literally)
  • Grace from The GreenHouse and Lauren from Church Without Walls for helping backstage to costume, cue, and keep everyone (relatively) quiet
  • Maliya, GreenHouse volunteer extraordinaire, who stayed long days after volunteering to rehearse and brought Gladys to life
  • Valeria, GreenHouse volunteer, who helped with the angel choir
  • Janelle, GreenHouse Oasis Director, who came back to play Imogene Herdman the day after her foot surgery
  • Olivia and Estefanía, GreenHouse parents, who got great laughs in their roles as gossipy moms – les agradecemos un montón
  • Johanna and Brenda, GreenHouse Grads and Staff, who jumped in to fill last-minute roles and helped direct traffic flow for the event
  • Susie from The GreenHouse Board, who did lights beautifully
  • Councilmember Angelique Ashby, for donating materials for the set
  • Church Without Walls in Berkeley, for lending their Epiphany costumes
  • Martin, who lent us the risers
  • Steve, for help with set construction and painting
  • Jesse, for filming
  • Ashley, GreenHouse teen, for taking pictures
  • Deborah, Judy, and other GreenHouse staff, for coordinating food and helping clean up
  • And of course, Pastor David Lindner, whose vision and faith for this performance empowered so many, and who embodied God’s grace throughout, even in the chaos.
  • Finally, to all The GreenHouse students who rehearsed and performed: Isaias, Nazila, Emily, Noah, Naomi, Calaysia, Nazanin, Odie, Anthony, Layla, Jacob, Auggie, Abraham, Faith, Domonique, Derricc, Niyati. We are so proud of you. Thank you for sharing the Christmas story with us in such a beautiful and powerful way.
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