A camel walks into a bar…
With three camels, sheep, a donkey, and local performers, Mustard Seed Uniting Church’s live Nativity is a spectacular performance that has brought the Christmas story to Sydney’s Inner West for the past decade.
The Reverend Dave Gore has been Minister at Mustard Seed Uniting Church for the past three years. He has previously organised two of the Nativities.
“It’s almost like a public or community celebration of the Nativity which involves a local choir, and a lot of the local school kids getting dressed up as angels or shepherds” Dave said.
“Since I’ve come along we’ve really simplified the story; we stay as close to the details we have in the biblical text, along with a bit of a narrative woven through it.”
Dave dresses up as an inn keeper for the event. Ultimo Uniting Church is located next to a small park, a village green in the dense back streets of inner-Sydney suburb. The animals are paraded through Quarry Green from Jones Street to Bulwara Road, in front of the church.
Mary and Joseph sometimes knock on people’s doors on the village green to seek a room. People in the area now expect this. “They get into the spirit of things; it’s a lot of fun,” Dave said.
“We usually have a neighbourhood baby as the baby Jesus – a baby who is usually less than six months old and, if possible, the mother plays Mary.” The crowd loves the cute factor; kids shepherd actual sheep.
Three wise men (last year it was women) come in on camels. “It’s just a bit of a spectacle.”
Dave estimates that about 500 people attended the nativity in 2016 and that it has been growing over the past few years. Rain just before the main event last week but people still came.
Embodying Christmas values
“And at the end – this is now tradition – the camel walks through the pub. There’s a pub diagonally opposite the church; a little ‘London neighbourhood’ style pub called the Lord Wolseley. The camel goes through one door of the pub and walks through. Everyone cheers and yahoos and then it usually gets parked outside for a while.”
Dave told Insights that the atmosphere is “very euphoric.” He thinks is because it’s usually warm and summery, people are getting in to holiday spirit, and “because the values that we bring out in the story are so good – the values of a God who isn’t coming in an ivory tower but is coming in a very simple form. The whole notion of subverting all the power structures which we think oppress us, and the sense of the simplicity and glory of a baby coming.”
Sydney’s Inner West is statistically one of the most non-religious areas in Australia. Despite this, Dave says that people know the Christmas story of Jesus and respond to it: it’s ingrained into the culture.
“Sometimes those sorts of stats are indicating that people are over the whole ‘religion’ thing and they are quite staunchly secular, in a way. But even so, there is no getting away from the fact that the values we have in Jesus are all the good values that every good person aspires to, no matter what religion they are in. So that’s the areas I focus on; the stuff that the Apostle Paul writes at one point: ‘All these really good attributes, against these things there are no laws.’” [Galatians 5:23].
“You don’t need to be protected against them. They’re good things, so I bring out the good things that people know about [the Christian] tradition; it’s built such robust societies for so long, albeit they’re woven through with unhelpful things like [sexism] or chauvinism, and a bunch of other twisted bits. You know, it’s not all a clean argument but the bit that are essential to the story [of Jesus], they are ‘clean’. There is no argument about those bits.”
“That’s kind of what happens in a soft way” at the nativity. “What people get to see is these are the universal values. These are the things that if everybody actually did hold to, we’d actually be a lot better off.”
According to Dave, people don’t tend to walk away saying “I’m going to become a Christian” but they like what the Church is on about and feel good about being part of the event. He says that the big win is positive community recognition.
“Usually we are so busy at the event itself, we don’t an opportunity for any in-depth conversations about faith or life matters.” A few people have come along to church afterwards; but they have come from Christian backgrounds.
“It gives us an enormous sense of standing in the community.”
Would he like more people to respond more strongly to Jesus, from this event?
“I’m a very strong believer in Jesus, in that I think he is the saviour of the world and if people were to live the way Jesus calls us to – and he demonstrated in the stories we have in the gospels – that will save the world. If we don’t, then we are just going to kill each other. I mean, look at what we’re doing at the moment. So I don’t really mind how people get to that point; I just want them to get there.”
“Yes, certainly, if people were, as a result of hearing the very basic story of the Nativity – in some ways, the story of the Nativity isn’t quite enough to get you over the line.”
“Let me say, it’s a great beginning and if it gets you in to the sense of wonder about a God who behaves in the way our God has done, that’s good enough, really.”
“We want to do everything we can to represent as accurately as possible what we understand to be the heart of God, as it’s been told to us in the scriptures. And we want to represent that to the community. And we have this confidence that if someone then does walk through the door, and they meet us as a community of believers, they’ll appreciate us.” According to Dave, Mustard Seed Uniting Church’s worship is not fancy – it involves music, preaching, and liturgy that is “good but not world beating”. But Dave says the people in the church are “good people and they care about people who come in for the first time.”
Engaging the Local Community
Dave told Insights that there a number of ways churches can engage with their local community at Christmas if they were inspired by the human Nativity event.
“Engage with your local community is the key phrase there. You’ve got to know your local community and what will be a helpful way to engage with them. You’ve also got to know your Congregation and what is an expression of what they desire to do and have a capacity to do.”
“There’s no point taking on a project you can’t actually pull off. So, think about where you are and who you are, and do the best thing you can do in that context. God never calls us to do stuff we can’t do. He always calls us to do everything we can do.”
This, Dave said, could look vastly different in different places but he thinks congregation and context is a critical thing.