Live Nativity pageants put on by Chattanooga-area Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ran through rehearsal for their nativity scene production on Wednesday, December 6, 2023.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ran through rehearsal for their nativity scene production on Wednesday, December 6, 2023.

Different roles in the live Nativity put on by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around Chattanooga have different challenges.

The roles of Mary and Joseph have a forbidding kind of gravitas. The narrator, who will whisk visitors through a series of vignettes, from the Old Testament to the new, has a ton of lines.

One might think that for all of this memorization, the narrator gets to be the star. Nathaniel Gee, however, said he seeks to bring to the role a sense of no-nonsense restraint.

"I would argue that the best job I will do is if they remember me the least," he said in a phone interview. "I want to be effective at bringing them to the spirit of the other actors and what they're seeing."

 

In a Chattanooga area steeped in Christian faith, the pageants, which play Thursday through Saturday at churches in Signal Mountain and Ooltewah, have been a key part of an effort by the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to move beyond prejudices and establish a common ground.

"The reason why we started doing this Nativity is that we wanted to become more unified with the community," said Jason Isaacson, president of the denomination in the region, in a phone interview. "And this community already has a great love for the savior, Jesus Christ."

Today, the Chattanooga area's cohort of Latter-day Saints — traditionally known as Mormons, although the church now discourages the term — numbers about 4,000, Isaacson said. When Isaacson led a church in Hixson, he said it sought to project a welcoming attitude with service projects, open houses and invitations to come tour the church and eat.

"I don't want people to not use the resources that we have just because they don't know anything about our church," he said.

If you go

— What: Live Nativity.

— When: 6-8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 3-5 p.m. Saturday.

— Where: Two locations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

3067 Ooltewah Ringgold Road, Ooltewah.

1160 Ridgeway Ave., Signal Mountain.

 

A few years ago, Isaacson and his family moved to Signal Mountain. About five years ago, he said, the Latter-day Saints church there produced its first Nativity production. This involved a little manger scene backdrop and a tent area that looked like an inn.

Isaacson said they invited the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and the Baptists. He said he didn't suspect how successful the event would be. On the last night, he said, a Baptist church rolled in with multiple buses of high schoolers.

Today, Isaacson said, he runs into people in the parking lot at Pruett's Market on Signal Mountain.

"And they're like, 'Oh yeah, you guys do the Nativity,'" he said.

Last year, the event extended to a Latter-day Saints church in Ooltewah, the hub of the denomination's Chattanooga-area stake, the name for the local body of churches. More than 1,000 people came, Isaacson said. Over 700 of them, he said, had never set foot in the church before.


Showtime

The nativity scene productions employ the skills and passions of many. There is a refreshment committee and a children's craft committee. Someone has to take on public relations. Ushers sign up to facilitate parking. Others spearhead signage. Interior decorators construct Old Bethlehem — and also establish a modern reception area, with activities and nourishment, for after the show.

Then there's the show itself. Some actors are eager; others need to be coaxed.

"We still need three more shepherds, guys, who's willing to step up?" Hilarie Robison, the Signal Mountain co-director, said she might say.

In some cases, actor volunteers have done their time in the Old Testament, which begins outside in the cold, and in future productions they leverage this experience to their advantage.

"They're like, 'I did that for three years,'" Robison said in a phone interview. "'If you want me this year — put me on an inside role.'"

Wednesday night was the dress rehearsal. Starting Thursday, visitors will be instructed to silence their phones before they encounter a narrator, like Gee, who will whisk them from modernity and into antiquity. In this ancient world, they will move through a series of vignettes, Robison said.

Early on, viewers will first find themselves in the age of Isaiah and Jeremiah. They'll move through the New Testament, finding themselves, for example, in a Bethlehem marketplace. It all builds toward the famous manger scene in the Book of Luke in which Jesus Christ is born — before the fourth wall is broken, and all are invited to sing.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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