Lest he inhibit the growth, Bisagno has gotten with the times as well. The praying knee has been reconciled with the dancing foot, and during the pageant this year, Bisagno just watched and clapped as women tap-danced where the pulpit usually stands.

The first act of the pageant is always Christmas candy, a bright, secular affair of greens and reds. The second act is always the story of Jesus, which is brown and dark, except for the beginning and the end.

Early on, the choir was divided into small groups, and everyone was given an assignment. The props people gathered in a downtown warehouse, the costume-makers in the choir room, the tap-dancers on the racquetball courts.

In early November, the stage was hauled out of storage, and inside the Worship Center, a group of retirees spent about a week banging it down over Bisagno's pulpit. After that, the choir began spending their weekends at church, and Gerald Ray began figuring out what to do with all these people.

"That's what's so great," explained Marcia Driskill, one of the dancers. "They tell you what to do, and you do it. You may not understand, but you know it will look good."

Most of the staging was actually done by Roger Raby and Gerald's wife, Trevelyn Ray. When the pieces had been arranged just so, Trevelyn sat down at her computer and typed out the exact locations of each of the 400 cast members in each of the scenes. These were passed out, and after that, adjustments were made by loudspeaker, or in the "Pageant Notes" that appeared after every rehearsal:

"Angels need to be looking out during the Heaven scene."
"Shepherds guarding the sheep need to have a couple of pooper scoopers with you just in case."

"The Sick and Lame and Lepers had a lot of people missing on Sunday. Scene Captain needs to check roll."

Gerald Ray mostly confined himself to the singing. "Your singing is abysmal," he told his flock, "which means not very good." When 400 people belted out the "Hallelujah Chorus," Ray was able to hear them sing Alleluia instead, and he was also very sensitive to that meager "Jesus" when the song was supposed to be "GEEsus Is His Name."

He scolded them for these things ("Don't give me any of those country vowels," he said), but just as quickly, he would call their efforts "beautiful" and "perfect," and one woman was so happy to be praised by Gerald Ray that she broke into tears. Others described him as "a gift from God."

"Everyone listen up," he said one Saturday. "This is Bill Scott. Bill is a new church member. Guess what role he's playing?"

"Jesus!" the people called out, clapping, and Scott stood and waved. Ray said he was really thankful Scott appeared on the scene this year, and Scott looked pretty glad to be there. Everyone was friendly. Men came to shake his hand; women told him they had prayed for his arrival. Children asked, how could he be Jesus if he had never even been in the pageant?

But he had begun getting into the spirit of things. Knowing that he would be crucified wearing only a "diaper," Scott had begun eating more carefully, and he wondered if maybe he shouldn't spend some time on a tanning bed. He couldn't help but worry about his hair. Ordinarily, it's a trim helmet, every strand in place, but he had been told there would be no more haircuts, and already, said Scott, "I feel like a raggedy old bum."

The verdict on this Jesus was "hard to call," said Benson Kelly, a disciple. "He's talented, but it's an awesome role."

Certainly, the part didn't come naturally to him. Scott tended to mumble during the Last Supper. The first time he was crucified, he got cramps in his calves. The second time, trying to simulate suffocation, he hyperventilated and had to jump down. But over time, he became comfortable enough in rehearsals that one day between crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus slipped out to watch the Rockets game at a nearby bar.

The angels had their problems, too. Some of them were showing up late in Heaven. As the problem was being addressed, Ray told the other angels to go ahead and get comfortable up there, "if you can do it without getting your heavenlies dirty."

And then, that was that for rehearsals, and there were no more. Ray told everyone they were wonderful people and surrendered the Christmas pageant to the hands of the Lord.

"Still our beating hearts and clear our minds and let us be vessels for you, O Father."

On opening night, the church was alive with a trembling power, and every seat in the Worship Center was filled with a possible lamb. In the chapel, all 600 heads went down in prayer and rose again with heavenly purpose. And then there was darkness. And then there was light.

The first act -- the secular part -- is designed to make the audience drop its guard, explained Brad Allen, the assistant music minister. That way, in the second act, "you can see the story of Christ and not feel threatened or beaten over the head."

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