MANDEVILLE, La. – Pat Hayden, a deacon at Mandeville Baptist Church in Louisiana, is a shepherd of sorts. It is his job to round up sheep, donkeys, goats and maybe a calf or two for the church’s annual Christmas live nativity.
But he doesn’t do it with a rod and staff. Hayden is the animal facilitator who arranges, by phone, for the mini-herd to be delivered from farms as far as 50 minutes away to the nativity scene on the church property for three afternoons in December.
The church has had some interesting experiences with the animals but generally everything goes off without a hitch, Hayden said.
About 1,000 people viewed a live nativity at Mandeville Baptist Church in Louisiana in just one weekend. The nativity includes several sheep and a trail with various scenes that might have surrounded Jesus’ birth.
“We have one lady who loans us between 15 to 20 sheep and we provide some funds for her expenses,” Hayden said. “Other people loan us donkeys, goats and even a calf, dropping off the animals before crowds start arriving and bringing them home afterwards each night. The owners are very good about helping and will stay around and watch and to be there if needed. Sometimes the animals stay overnight.”
This is the fourth year the church has staged the live nativity called “And on Earth: Peace,” which is viewed by an estimated 1,000 people the first full weekend of December. Guests walk a roped-off trail to view nine scenes of events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
The scenes, portrayed by church members and animals, are lit by torches, fire pits and lights. Markers at each station explain each scene while Christmas music plays.
“We use mostly donkeys standing in the scenes and put sheep in little corrals that church members have built,” said David Watson, music director at First Baptist Mandeville.
“We’ve never had any problems, but we did have one funny experience when one of the guys decided to try and ride one of the donkeys after a performance. He dug his heels in the donkey’s side and the donkey reared straight up and threw him 10 feet right into one of our nativity signs, then took off.”
Hayden recalled one year when the live nativity included two male donkeys: one regular sized and one miniature, plus one female donkey.
“There was a turf war between the two male donkeys for the affection of the female donkey and the miniature donkey was primarily the more interested one,” Hayden said. “That was pretty funny.”
He said the animals are popular with the crowds and many want to pet the animals.
“The sheep are docile,” Hayden said. “They just mosey along. But they like to eat and they’ll start munching towards the baby Jesus in the straw if you don’t watch them.”
Both Watson and Hayden say animal “hygiene” is not a problem.
“The performance is at night and outdoors,” Hayden said, “so you don’t see any ‘accidents.’ We control that by putting down straw where the animals stand.”
Overall, Watson said, the animals lend an air of authenticity to the event that makes the portrayal of Jesus’ birth more dramatic to the 100 members of the cast and crew.
“We’ve done lots of programs and dramas, but we’ve never dreamed this would have such an impact on us,” Watson said. “The first night we staged this, while we were cleaning up, we could not get over how much more real Jesus was to us. We could feel it and see it on each other’s faces during the performance and on the faces of the people who came.”