One woman’s vision has resulted in a small East Texas church reaching thousands with the message of Christ.
Wayne Frazier had only been pastor of Montalba Baptist Church a few years when the late Carolyn Bledsoe, a longtime member, made an unexpected request. Bledsoe’s husband, Charles, chaired the board of deacons.
“I had a dream that we turned our little property here into Bethlehem,” Bledsoe told Frazier.
That vision became a reality, resulting in gospel presentations to more than 10,000 people since 2008 through an annual Christmas event, A Walk Through Bethlehem, that continues to attract visitors from across the state and nation.
The property to which Bledsoe referred was a corner tract of 10 acres, mostly pastureland, beside the main church building. The house that once stood on the property had long been moved. All that remained was the black-topped driveway leading into a pecan grove.
Where most saw an empty lot, Bledsoe envisioned the Holy Land. It would take nearly the entire congregation of 40–50 in the unincorporated Anderson County community of fewer than 1,000 to pull it off, but they were fully committed from the beginning, Frazier said.
Bledsoe directed the first three years of the event before turning over the reins to volunteer Susan Shelton.
How the walk works
Held Friday to Sunday during the second weekend of December, the walk is a literal walk, although it starts with an old-fashioned hayride.
Guests park at the church and enter the fellowship hall, where they enjoy cookies and cocoa and receive goodie bags filled with items such as gospel tracts, a Christmas ornament and Christmas crafts for children — all with an emphasis on the nativity.
Church volunteers greet guests and help load each group of 20–25 on a hay trailer.
“Then we take them through the ‘time tunnel,’” Frazier said, describing it as an archway of lights.
The hayride takes guests past shepherds watching sheep and stops at the Bethlehem city gates, where passengers disembark and are led by a costumed guide through an East Texas version of the streets of the town of Jesus’ birth.
Shops and attractions change from year to year.
All actors stay in character inside the town walls. Children are apt to receive a silver coin from a money changer. Guests may view a local potter’s wares or pass a shop selling doves for sacrifice. Actual sheep, goats, and donkeys provide further realism.
The walk culminates with a stop before the stable, where guests sit in a small amphitheater and view the nativity. Either Frazier or his son Judson, pastor of First Baptist Church Fruitvale, Texas, will give a brief message about the real meaning of Christmas. They always present the gospel during the message.
Since Wayne and his wife, Jennifer, have 10 children, some years a Frazier baby portrayed the baby Jesus. But with December weather often unpredictable, the church purchased a lifelike doll for the nativity, Shelton said.
With 500–700 visitors per year, the event is a massive outreach.
Heart of the walk
Sharing of the gospel is the heart of the walk, Frazier said.
“Our church hasn’t grown a lot physically, but its outreach has grown exponentially,” he said, explaining that Montalba Baptist’s location in a primarily retirement-aged community with no school nearby precludes some traditional outreaches.
Still, Montalba Baptist’s congregation desires to be kingdom-focused. The walk provides an opportunity to do just that, as does the church’s annual Fourth of July community picnic and fireworks show.
Both events are offered free of charge to attendees.
“We try to do all we can,” Frazier said. “We want to invest in people so that when they go back to Fairfield, Crockett, Dallas, or wherever, they impact their communities.”
The day before the 2021 walk opened, Carolyn Bledsoe was laid to rest in South Texas. Frazier preached the funeral service and rushed back to Montalba in time for the first guests.
He knew “Miss Carolyn” would have wanted it no other way.
The 2022 Walk through Bethlehem is scheduled for Dec. 9–11 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.