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'Journey to Bethlehem' starts next week
Millie the camel is a popular feature of "Journey to Bethlehem." Owners Art and Michelle Stehly drive Millie up every night from their Chowchilla ranch and take her home after each performance. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER / The Journal

Ceres may be a half a world away from the site of the biblical journey on which Christmas is centered but the folks at Grace Community Christian Church are planning to give the public their best shot at recreating the "Journey to Bethlehem."

The 17th annual traditional Christmas venue opens at the church, 3754 E. Service Road, on Dec. 5 and will also be held on Dec. 6, 7 and 12, 13 and 14. For Thursdays and Fridays, gates open at 4 p.m., tours start at 7 p.m. and close at 9 p.m. Saturday tours start at 6 p.m. and close at 9 p.m.

There is no admission charge but donations are accepted.
The event takes visitors on a recreation of the historic pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem to pay taxes since everyone had to return to one's hometown to do so. The couple lived in Nazareth before the birth of the Christ child and had to travel some 80 miles. Along the way travelers would encounter thieves, suspicious characters, swindlers and others. The couple would have had to endure uncomfortably cold conditions in their estimated 10 miles of travel per day on their way to the birth.

Last year rain wiped out the first three scheduled runs. That only created a busy remaining three evenings which drew approximately 7,500 visitors from all over the Valley.

Tamara Hott, the lead organizer of what has become known as "Journey," said some people make an event out of the wait to get in, including tailgate parties in the parking lot with pop-up tents and barbecue pits.

Since weather is the unknown factor, the church has a policy of offering to people in lines or tents the option of going through with the tour if light rains sprinkle on Ceres. But normally if it looks like rain or high winds for the evening the event is cancelled.

"I'm hoping we'll run all six nights because a lot of money and a lot of hard work goes into this," said Hott. "We have a lot of church groups that come out every year. People from out of the country hear about this program ... and some have made their trip around this to see it. One lady from England did that. It's pretty big."

Visitors should also be advised that the uneven walking surface of the field make wheelchair navigation difficult.

High winds damaged a lot of the Journey sets which have been repaired in all-day-Saturday workdays that have been taking place since September. Volunteers actually started on the event in February, however, said Hott.

Because pulling off Journey takes about 200 volunteers and Grace has about 120 members, a host of volunteers come from other Ceres area churches.

"We have an older congregation so we have a lot of people who don't even go to our church who come out to help us," said Hott.

Hott said the church still could use both additional tour guides who need to memorize and deliver lines during the 45-minute tour, and tour guide assistants to usher the group along. The church prefers that guides and assistants walk two to three tours for any given evening.

The grounds can accommodate 13 tour leaders with groups of no more than 30 persons. More guides mean the church can conduct more tours and cycle more people through and reduce waiting times.

Hott said that there is also room for volunteers who wish to be players with non-speaking roles in the market place.

Journey, which was started in 1996 by Pastor Wayne and Sue Unger, has become a family endeavor for the Hotts for the past eight years. Tamara's husband Robert supports the effort by setting up and filling in as a troubleshooter.

This year both daughters have roles to play. Ashlyne Hott will be a dancer at the marketplace entrance and Lynsey is expected to be a pottery seller in a marketplace.

For more information on Journey, visit or call 531-1902.