Christmas play to show ‘it’s OK to be different’

Sanctuary UMC, an inclusive church, reaches out to neighbors
Dec. 12, 2012 @ 03:50 PM

WHAT: “A Very Brave Christmas”
WHEN: 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16. A fellowship meal provided at 1 p.m.
WHERE: Sanctuary United Methodist Church at Lakewood
2317 Chapel Hill Road, Durham

The Christmas play this year at Sanctuary United Methodist Church at Lakewood aims to reach out to all people the same way the church itself does.
A girl named Pat doesn’t like to wear the dresses her mom wants her to, and after a falling out goes to talk to a mechanic friend, who encourages her to go home and reconcile with her family. On the way, Pat falls asleep in a barn and wakes up to “Wizard of Oz” characters telling her the story of another young girl who, many, many years ago, was different and scared, explained Sanctuary Lay Leader Mark Hipps, who wrote and directs “A Very Brave Christmas.”
“But by being different and being special, she changed the world,” Hipps said, referring to Jesus’ mother, Mary. “Pat learns it’s OK to be different, and God loves all of us for our uniqueness,” he said.  “If we were the same, magical, wonderful things wouldn’t happen. God uses us in wonderful ways.” The play will be presented at 2 p.m. Sunday at the church on Chapel Hill Road.
Sanctuary UMC is a reconciling, inclusive congregation. Hipps was once a divinity school student, but as an openly gay man and a United Methodist, the denomination will not ordain him. Those who attend Sanctuary UMC are as diverse as they come, Hipps said, including race and homelessness status.
“Sometimes I refer to us as the Island of Misfit Toys,” he said, referencing the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” television special. “Those of us who do come and participate on a regular basis are passionate about it.” Weekly attendance ranges from a dozen to 25 people.
Hipps didn’t grow up going to church and wondered why whites and African-Americans had separate churches, when God’s house is not separate. He began going to church in college, and was a member of Sanctuary back when it was Lakewood United Methodist Church. It was relaunched as Sanctuary UMC at Lakewood about five years ago.
“In this church, it’s always been about how we’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord. If you walk in that door, you won’t be turned away,” Hipps said as he stood in the sanctuary Monday night. He plays the scarecrow and butler in the play. He and four other members were meeting to go caroling in the neighborhood and invite neighbors to “A Very Brave Christmas.”
It’ll be a really unusual play, said member David Ross. “It’ll just absolutely startle people with the message of Christmas told in this way,” Ross said.
The play is also a worship service, and somewhat participatory in that the congregation will recite the Lord’s Prayer along with the cast. Communion will follow the 2 p.m. Sunday play. Before the play, at 1 p.m., all are invited to a meal.
Hipps is cooking a turkey, and the congregation is bringing side dishes and desserts to the potluck meal before the play. Visitors can bring a dish for the meal or a canned good to donate to Urban Ministries of Durham, or neither, he said. Only their presence is needed.
“Everyone is welcome at the table,” Hipps said.
Tommy Walters, a shepherd in the play, has been a member of Sanctuary, and before that Lakewood, since 1953. He went over his lines about the manger and brightness of the angel.
Hipps wrapped plates of Christmas cookies and put them in a box as they headed out the church’s side door onto Huron Street.
No answer at the first house, just barking dogs. One of the caroling members had his dog with him – sometimes dogs come to the pet-friendly church, too. They left a flier, and gave another to a passing dog walker. Down the street, past the inflatable Santa Claus in an airplane and inflatable Thomas the Tank Engine, they knocked again.
A woman opened the door, and the “Island of Misfit Toys” introduced themselves, told her about the play and sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in earnest. The neighbor took the flier, said thank you, and wished them a Merry Christmas.
Silhouetted under the street lamps, the five carolers and a large dog, too, followed the black asphalt road, spreading Christmas cheer and an invitation to everyone they met.