First Baptist Church expected 50,000 people to see this year's Christmas spectacular. The stage was ready. The wise men and the shepherds had been cast. Now, all they needed was...THE NEW JESUS
In the beginning was the script, and the script was with God, and the script was God, and the people auditioned for the roles. A hospital clerk was chosen to play Mary, a plumber to play Joseph, and Judas was the church maintenance man.
Jesus was the question. He was the chosen one, the only role for which there could be no tryouts. The people believed they would know Jesus when he came. He would be a longhaired, bearded man with clear, kind eyes -- strong yet tender, but most importantly, tall. The stage would swallow a short Christ.
Within a month, 50,000 people would start arriving to see the Christmas pageant, and still there was no Christ to be found. First Baptist Church was lost without Jesus. The actors went on alone, rehearsing as though moving in darkness, acting without meaning. "Are you Jesus?" they began asking strangers, but when the answer was, "No -- are you?" they tried not to despair. "The Lord will provide," one woman declared, and many people prayed to Jesus for a good Jesus, and lo, one Sunday in November it came to pass: Christ was born again.
He came in the person of Bill Scott, a 34-year-old stockbroker who had a habit of drinking his lunches at Hooters and a load of guilt that drove him down the aisle to repent. It wasn't until new member orientation that his potential was recognized. His hair was a bit too coiffed, but Scott had a nice beard and seemed to be a mighty nice guy. At six feet seven inches, he would be a true tower of power, perhaps the tallest Jesus of all time.
"I've been watching you," one of the pastors told him, "and I think you'd make a great Jesus Christ."
What could he say to that? The choice was approved by the powers that be, and Bill Scott began learning what it meant to give his life to Christ. The significance didn't strike him immediately, but probably it would, he said, after he got into character.
"It does seem to be a strange situation, doesn't it?" said Scott. "You join a church, go to new member orientation, and the next thing you know, you're Jesus. It's almost embarrassing."
Word has it that the original character was born about 2,000 years ago in a barn. Earlier this month, for the 27th year, Jesus was born under spotlights in a $500,000 play in First Baptist's multimillion-dollar Worship Center.
It was the largest production of the sixth-largest church in the entire Southern Baptist Convention. It required a stage half the size of a football field, two giant puppets from ceremonies of the summer Olympics, a camel and a flock of sheep, scores of speakers, perhaps a dozen spotlights, a simulated earthquake and of course, a crucifixion before a flashing, blood-red sky.
This was Merry Christmas to you from the members of the First Baptist Church choir, all 400 of them, plus a stage crew of 200. Many churches have large Christmas pageants now, but First Baptist considers itself the granddaddy of them all. The minister of music, Gerald Ray, began the show in 1970, and now he begins thinking about Christmas in March. Everyone else gets busy in August, when Ray presents the plan. "More stress on GEEsus," he told the choir this year, as they rehearsed a carol. And the members mastered dozens of carols and built elaborate props. The women sewed more than one hundred costumes. The men quit cutting their hair and grew beards. Everything was made as authentic as they knew authentic to be.
First Baptist tries to adhere strictly to the Bible, but it hasn't always been possible. One year, the Roman soldier coming for Jesus lost his skirt. Another year, Crete, the camel, lost control of its bowels, explosively, all over the stage. During the Last Supper, the disciples once drank Thunderbird wine and ate their bread with peanut butter as the stage hand who prepared the meal sat beneath the table tickling their feet.
Usually, however, the pageant is a flawless, deadly serious event that goes so well because so many go along. Roger Raby, the artistic director, also works in professional theater but prefers the people he encounters in the church. "If I told everyone to stand on their heads," he said, "they'd try 100 times before they said they couldn't."
Sometimes they stayed after midnight preparing. Between scenes, some of them conducted business on cellular phones, while others graded papers. They came when their spouses were gravely ill. As therapy for grief, they came when their spouses had recently died. The actors prayed for one another and for the play, and when they were tired, they prayed for energy. What they did could only have been done in a church. Anywhere else, a professional cast of this size would have been too expensive, and a volunteer cast too unreliable. The Christmas pageant was an act of faith.
First Baptist Church is the vision of John Bisagno, the pastor known to his flock as Brother John. At 62, he is round and jolly, and reclining in his study on his overstuffed couch, he looked very much like a beardless Santa Claus. Once, he interrupted the interview to call a fellow minister with career advice. ("I'd go with Memphis," he said. "You have no obligations to Corpus Christi.") Twice, aromas of lunch arrived from the kitchen below, and Brother John smiled and said, "Sure smells good." Then he got back to the business of Jesus.
"The meaning of Christmas is pure and simple," he said.
Man was made to be with God, but something happened (a woman, if you want to know), and man became separated from God. Man lived in sin and pain and emptiness, until God, in his mercy, gave man the connection.
"In a miracle beyond our comprehension," Bisagno explained, "our perfect God became a man for 33 years in the person of Jesus, who lived a perfect life and died for us."
If you follow Jesus now, you'll come eventually to God's place, where the gates are like pearl and the streets seem golden, except that they are better than pearls or gold. All the riches will be better in Heaven, Bisagno promised, and so will our capacity to enjoy them. If you love your wife all you can on earth, "well, maybe that's a bushel-full," he said, "and I think in Heaven, it'll be a truckload."
If, on the other hand, you choose to live without the Lord, your mortal life will be spent in pain and godless emptiness, and you'll pass eternity not sifting through the riches of Heaven but barbecuing in the pits of Hell, where fires are said to burn hotter than any fire you know.
The choice is simple for Baptists -- eternal bliss over endless pain any day -- and it's hard for them to understand why anyone would choose differently, unless they've simply not heard the good word. To leave the ignorant to their fates, Bisagno said, would be like possessing the cure for AIDS and doing nothing but lying around watching football. This is the burden of being a Southern Baptist, a burden that is heavier now than ever before.
Bisagno wanted you to know (Merry Christmas) that the world is dying. Jesus, who was the Alpha, is also the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is coming again soon to lead his disciples into Heaven and to cast the rest into Hell. You see the signs in the newspapers -- the stories of murder and rape, of war and famine and disease. Open your Bible to Revelation, and you will see the sun black as a sackcloth of hair and the moon like blood, and Death riding in on his pale horse.
"It is doom," said Brother John, "and I believe in my heart Jesus Christ is the only hope. That's why getting his message out in every conceivable way is our priority."
That's why Baptists preach on radio and television and before hostile crowds. And that's why, each December, First Baptist stages the Christmas pageant. "It's probably the best thing we do," said the pastor.
One weekday afternoon, Bill Scott took off early and went to church to pick up Jesus' lines. He had spent the previous night looking over the Bible for "probably the first time in my life," he said. He had watched videos from pageants past, and he had just begun to understand the scope of his role.
"God," he said, "what a big production!"
His five-year-old daughter was most worried about the nails in his hands. Actually, he didn't know why, but he was also worried about the crucifixion. It didn't help when Raby, the artistic director, told him dying is always the hardest part.
"As a matter of fact, we have to measure you for the cross," Raby said with no trace of humor. "We've found in the past not all Jesuses fit the same."
"Not a one-size-fits-all, huh?" said Scott.
"No," said Raby. "We probably should have made it adjustable."
The cross was laid on the floor of the Worship Center, and Scott laid himself across it, while Raby told him how to place his feet.
"Okay," Raby said, "keep scooting down till we get the right look."
How could Scott have imagined it would come to this? He grew up in Houston without religion, the son of a doctor and a nurse. In high school, "a bad period in my life," he got involved with beer and marijuana and would get high and then go to class. One day in geometry, he asked a pretty girl if he could pay her to do his homework. Her name was Mary. She said no, but the ice was broken, and soon, Scott was involved with her, too.
After high school, he married Mary and began attending classes at the University of Houston. He was working on his business degree when he realized a degree wasn't necessary to sell stocks. He took a job with a local firm, and then four years ago, opened his own. By last year, Scott boasted, he was hauling in 200K and feeling pretty good about himself. And that's when he began going to Hooters with the fellas, drinking away his afternoons.
His two kids were in school, his wife was at work and there he was, out guzzling beer, gazing at buxom blonds. The devil was at work in that place, and Bill Scott began developing guilt for liking it there. He turned a corner the day one of the waitresses lamented the passing of a customer like himself, a man who was killed driving home.
What a shame, someone said. You can go any minute.
Well, said one buddy, at least if he died on the way home, he'd be going to Heaven.
Not me, said Scott, and all his chums turned to look at him.
Why not? they asked. You're a nice guy.
Scott explained that you have to accept Christ to go to Heaven, which was a notion he'd gotten from Mary. He finished his beer then and risked his eternal life getting home, and when Mary announced that she was taking the children to church on Sunday, Scott told her not to leave without him.
They went, and they kept going. It felt good to hear someone speak firmly, to learn what you had to do to make everything all right. At the end of each sermon, Bisagno called all sinners down. Scott resisted the call for months until he could resist no more. He leaned over and kissed his wife. "I'm going," he whispered, and with tears in his eyes and his knees shaking, Bill Scott went to be born again.
He was still learning about his new faith a few weeks later when he leaned forward in his seat and said, "Do you know why Baptists don't have sex standing up? Because they're afraid someone will think they're dancing."
He chuckled softly at that. Baptists seemed like fun people to him, and he seemed happy with his decision. Accepting and becoming Christ had broadened his social circle immensely, and with his afterlife assured, Bill Scott was able to drink beer in peace.
He can do that, can't he? For a moment, he looked scared again.
"God says don't commit adultery, but I don't know if God says don't drink beer. Does he? Don't Baptists have a reputation for drinking? I thought they did, but it's certainly not why I chose the religion."
Between sinful histories and the straight and narrow existences they lead after being born again, Baptists divide their lives in two. In Brother John Bisagno's old life, he was a jazz musician.
"What's it going to be, Johnny, jazz or Jesus?' his conscience asked him when he was young. As he wrote in his book Young Man with a Horn, the answer for five years was jazz.
He had been playing the trumpet for about a year in his Oklahoma high school band when someone asked him to sit in with a dance band. And that's when he started down the road "which for many has been a road of no return."
When he played "that crazy jazz," all the young scholars began throwing off their ties and shoes to wiggle to the music. Bisagno became wildly popular. He had a hot rod with the words "Hot Lips" painted on the side. He had "anything a teenage boy's heart desired," except peace. Something in his upbringing told him it was wrong making those people rub together like that, and so after his freshman year, Bisagno found himself in a camp for young Christians. He rode in with an empty heart and rode out with joy, and just like that, the trumpeter became the evangelist.
At his revivals, he passed out Young Man with a Horn. "A dancing foot and a praying knee never grow on the same leg," he wrote, and a jazz club, with its "stench of liquor, cheap perfume, cigar and cigarette smoke, the sweat of hot bodies, Black, White, Chinese and Mexican" is "the very heart of Hell."
In 1965, Bisagno became pastor of a small church in Dell City, Oklahoma. Four years later, it was the largest Baptist church in the state. When he came to First Baptist in 1970, the membership was about 3,500 and dropping. Looking on the church as "a kind of corporation," Bisagno governed with "the executive approach," he said. He delegated authority to the best men he could find, including one Gerald Ray, minister of music, and he focused his own efforts on maximizing resources toward long-term growth.
"If you don't stretch higher than you can reach, it isn't faith," Brother John told his flock. When he asked them to build a new church away from downtown, they agreed to pay the $8 million for that. In 1981, four years after it was completed, he told them it was too small, and nearly unanimously, his flock agreed to a plan that would require 20 percent of their incomes for two years.
"They're a very, very responsive congregation," said Brother John.
Where the Katy Freeway meets the 610 Loop, First Baptist Church is a long brown-brick complex now that looks something like a packing plant. The Worship Center has banked seats like a stadium and holds 4,000 people. There's a Garden of Eatin' cafe, along with a bookstore and bowling alleys and basketball and racquetball courts. Church programs include a course called "Master Your Money" and weight-loss classes in which you ask God to help you control your appetite.
All of these accessories are designed to make life at First Baptist very comfortable and inviting. The world may be dying, but First Baptist calls itself "A Church for Our Times," and 21,000 have found refuge there. The most remarkable quality of these members is their sameness. For blacks and Hispanics, for Cambodians and Eritreans, First Baptist has planted 40 mission churches in the city since 1985. As for itself, First Baptist remains almost entirely white -- an orderly, well-ventilated retreat that is the antithesis of Bisagno's jazz-club hell.
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."
The songs were cheery, and the children were cute. It was thrilling when the drums began to beat and the whistles to blow, and the house was invaded by dancing toy soldiers and giant puppets marching down from the balconies. It was like a parade -- very exciting until it passed. There was silence and darkness then and an empty stage, and then with 400 candles, the choir filed in and lined the walls and filled the air with "Silent Night."
... round yon vir-gin moth-er and child
Ho-ly in-fant so ten-der and mild
Sleep in heav-enly pe-eace
Sle-ep in heav-enly peace ...
The baby Jesus had been chosen for its peaceful qualities. A group of baby Jesuses rotated in and out from one show to the next. "Boy, girl -- it doesn't matter out on the stage," said Annella Taylor, who directed them.
Off-stage, the adult Jesus was worried about the crown of thorns. He hadn't tried it on, and since nothing else was one-size-fits-all, why should the crown be? His body was covered with dark makeup, and he was so nervous that he sweated off what was under his arms. Then his cue came, and Bill Scott stepped into the spotlight, wearing a frock and custom-made size-14 Jesus sandals.
He opened his arms to his disciples, and with a beatific smile, one of them came to him and whispered, "Your fly's open."
"Bless you, my child," said Jesus.
He healed the sick. He gave sight to the blind. He spoke boldly as he broke the bread that was his body. And then it was time to die.
This was a Baptist Christmas play, and the crucifixion was the most spectacular scene. That's when the earth shook, and a bloody sky flashed with fat, B movie lightning bolts. Lights up on Bill Scott, and he seemed to be doing well, heaving and writhing and dying quite nicely. Two scenes later, in what the narrator described as "a picture of what awaits those of us who do believe," there he was in Heaven, smiling happily, surrounded by fawning angels. In a shimmering gown, he walked down among them and raised his hands high to the crowd. There was an explosion of applause and a standing ovation, and then, from out of a tunnel and through the mist, a large, round figure stepped forth. Standing among the angels, it was Brother John. He said he knew exactly what we were thinking: How can we hold onto this wonderful feeling?
"Well, you can, you know," he said. "Jesus came alive on this stage, and he can come alive in your heart. Every day can be Christmas for the rest of your life."
No one was saved that night -- probably, most in the crowd had already been saved -- but the pageant was launched, and the choir was euphoric.
"Jesus, you can't be a stick in the mud!" Bill Scott heard, and it was a retired Jesus telling him. "You gotta go out and party with us!"
Someday, he answered, but not now, and Scott left the church, still wearing his scar. His experience in Heaven had been one of the most electrifying of his life, and he hoped he would get to go there every year. But now he was going home. His family was asleep when he arrived, but there was a note on his pillow. He picked it up and read, "We're very proud of you."
His work was done.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.