The little town of Bethlehem will be coming to life again this year in Cooperstown with animals, bakers, blacksmiths, potters, Roman soldiers, townsfolk and, of course, the Nativity.
“We created a working town. The potter and the blacksmith do those things in real life, either as a hobby or as a small business,” said Laura Fultz, director of the event at the Evangelistic Tabernacle in Cooperstown.
Fultz said the goal is to make the event as authentic as possible to what first-century Bethlehem in Israel would have been like.
In addition to about 40 actors each night who bring the town to life for one weekend a year, other volunteers aid in building and decorating the town; planning, cleaning and ironing costumes; baking goodies; and directing parking the weekend of the event.
The Rev. Mark Fultz, pastor of the Evangelistic Tabernacle and Laura Fultz’s husband, noted last year that there were 1,500 people who visited. In 2019, there was a record attendance of close to 1,900.
“Around 400 people live in this community. We’re pretty far out,” he said. “Nobody just ends up in Cooperstown. You have to come here on purpose.”
Laura Fultz said people “have baggage from the hard experiences in their lives,” and some are afraid to attend church.
“We wanted to create something that would bring people here without worrying about the church building,” she said. “To help people feel the emotion, we try to have a real baby each year. We wanted to bring people in to see the beginning of God coming to be with us.”
Laura Fultz said the effort “involves pretty much everyone in the congregation.” Although the older people can’t tolerate the cold, they help behind the scenes.
“We feel like this is a unique ministry God has given to us,” she said. “The children in the congregation also dress up, run around the village playing, and they love it.”
Bethlehem even has its own extensive cave, where the animals are stabled and the actors portraying Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus sit because “there was no room at the inn.”
Each year the town has live animals: sheep, goats, a donkey, calves, horses and chickens.
“Over the years, some animals have had to be sent home before the event because they are too rowdy and can’t handle the crowds,” Laura Fultz said.
Although weather impacts attendance, the event goes forward each year — rain or shine, Mark Fultz said.
“Some years, we have had to shovel snow; other years, we have brought in sawdust because of the rain,” Laura Fultz said.
Preparations each year begin in April and May and last throughout the summer for an event that only runs for one weekend in December, Mark Fultz said.
Dream to reality
For years, Mark Fultz had dreamed of bringing Bethlehem to life.
In 2015, the Fultz’s younger son, Rob, then 18, brought his father’s vision into being.
“My son already had a job as the groundskeeper. He would imagine the village while mowing,” Laura Fultz said.
Prior to 2015, the Evangelistic Tabernacle had participated in Franklin’s Light Up Night with prize-winning floats as well as having a live Nativity at the church.
Rob Fultz was involved in designing the floats, his mother said. She has a background in decorating, so she taught him about design.
For his senior project, he designed the church’s float that year.
“He went above and beyond…It was very impactful,” she said.
The float depicted Heaven on one end of the trailer and hell (real fire) on the other end, with Jesus as the bridge between, Laura Fultz said.
But it was too much to continue with the floats and also have a live Nativity at the church, Laura Fultz said. The decision was made to focus on expanding the live Nativity to a live interactive experience of Bethlehem village.
“We would go out into Franklin (for Light Up Night) and we were winning awards, but it wasn’t bringing people into our church,” Laura Fultz recalled.
In the seven years since, the village has grown, from a drive-through village with buildings that were put up for the event and then taken down yearly to a number of permanent structures that are stage set each year for the weekend-long event.
Although Rob Fultz is now a Marine stationed in Hawaii, he still collaborates with his mother and envisions ways to expand and improve Bethlehem.
“My son is still our visionary and I’m the director. We have become a really good team,” Laura Fultz said.
“We want people to experience that God is alive. Our world is so full of fear right now; it’s not hard to see that there isn’t much hope. We want people to see the hope in Jesus Christ.”
Themes of hope and fear and hard times hit home for the Fultz family in October when Mark Fultz was hospitalized with COVID-19.
“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that God is real and hears us when we pray, and he still does miracles today, though they don’t look the same as in Bible times,” Laura Fultz said of her husband’s recovery and the many people who prayed for his recovery.
Bethlehem: A Live Walk Through the Village Experience is a free event that will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 10 to 12 at Evangelistic Tabernacle, 216 N. Main St., Cooperstown.