By Bill Webb, Word&Way Editor
It was Christmas pageant time at Fourth Avenue Baptist Church, just inside the beltway on the east edge of town.
The pageant at Old Fourth was a long-standing tradition. The script and the music remained the same every year. So did the costumes. The men of the church had become pretty proficient in setting up the props stored in the choir room, including the plywood donkey, cows and sheep.
To be honest, the pageant had become pretty predictable. But from generation to generation, it had engendered pride among the folks at Old Fourth. It linked them to a past that sometimes seemed more glorious than their present. They simply could not imagine Christmas without the pageant.
One of the distinctives was how Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus were selected each year. The newest baby in the church, as long as he — or she — wasn't too new, always portrayed Jesus. His — or her — parents usually played Mary and Joseph.
On Sunday morning before the pageant was to be presented the following Sunday evening, pastor Sam Hayes announced the weeknight rehearsal schedule for the pageant. With music limited to traditional hymns by the sanctuary choir and children's angel singers and almost no speaking lines, a week of rehearsal was more than adequate.
"And don't forget," said Pastor Sam, "John and Marilyn will play Joseph and Mary this year. Little Tommie, blond curls and all, will be the Christ child."
But it was only a few hours later, during the monthly Sunday afternoon deacons' meeting that Pastor Sam broke the news that John Jones' father, who lived in another state, had suffered a heart attack. John, Marilyn and Tommie were already on their way and couldn't attend rehearsals and play their parts.
"What'll we do?" asked Keith Billingsley. "We can't use Jerry Batson again. As big as he is, he's liable to jump out of the manger and run off before the pageant is over."
"Knowing we had a crisis on our hands, I took the liberty of finding replacements," the pastor responded. "After John called to tell me about his dad, I drove downtown to the Sixth Street Shelter and asked Meredith Sanders if she would consider being Mary and let her son, Emmanuel, portray Jesus. She wasn't too sure at first, but she finally agreed."
"Pastor, isn't that the 16-year-old girl with the baby born out of wedlock who's been in our services the past two Sundays?" George Hembrough asked. "Are you sure we want someone like that in our pageant?"
Deacon emeritus Raymond Shaw adjusted his hearing aid just in time to get in on the issue at hand. Wiry and fiery and the church's No. 1 moral guardian, he responded predictably: "Pastor, if that unmarried girl and her illegitimate baby play the parts, it will make a mockery of the Christmas story. We might even be calling down the wrath of God on our church. Even worse, we'll be the laughingstock of this community. God can't bless us if we elevate sin like this."
Pastor Sam measured his words. "I'll take full responsibility for what happens. And since Meredith doesn't have a husband, I'll play the part of Joseph. It just seems to me that perhaps God brought Meredith and her little baby our way for a purpose.
"Meredith has her hands full right now," the pastor continued, "and her relationship with her parents is strained. I believe our members can be a good support to her, and I believe she and Emmanuel may be exactly what we need for the pageant."
In his five years at Fourth Avenue, Pastor Sam had won the deacons' trust. They decided to go along with his emergency arrangement. After all, none of them had a better idea.
By Monday, virtually everyone had heard that the "teen-ager with a baby" was going to portray Mary in the pageant. The Old Fourth grapevine kicked into overdrive.
"What kind of message will this send to our young people," one person snipped. "This year's pageant will be a disaster," whispered another. "It's pretty ironic that she is playing the part of a virgin," said still another.
Pastor Sam did his best to encourage everyone as they prepared for Sunday night. Ellen Smith and Trudy Kincaid, who originally visited Meredith at the shelter and invited her and 2-month-old Emmanuel to church, helped them with their costumes. They looked out for Meredith and Emmanuel during rehearsals.
Meredith asked a lot of questions during the week. "This is the first time I've heard the entire Christmas story," she admitted. "I'll do my best to do a good job." Emmanuel thrived on the attention and proved himself a good-natured little actor.
By week's end, Meredith had made some new friends, and adults and young people alike waited their turns to hold Emmanuel.
The next Sunday morning was a pretty good one at Old Fourth. Attendance was a tad above normal, the music was festive and everyone was in the Christmas spirit. Pastor Sam, a good preacher all the time, outdid himself with a message on the love of God revealed in His Son, the Messiah.
The invitation at Old Fourth had become a time when folks started slipping on their jackets and thinking about lunch plans, but it was different this time. As soon as the pianist started the introduction for "Just As I Am," down the aisle came Meredith, cradling little Emmanuel in her arms. Trudy Kincaid was at her side.
At the conclusion of the singing, Pastor Sam motioned for Meredith to stand next to him. "This is Meredith Sanders," he said. "Most of you know Meredith and her baby, Emmanuel, have been attending our church for the past couple of weeks. Meredith has made a decision, and I have asked her to tell you about it."
The young woman handed Emmanuel to Trudy, and then turned to the congregation.
"Many of you know that Emmanuel and I came to town a couple of weeks ago from Illinois. I was a sophomore in high school when I made a terrible mistake and found myself pregnant. My parents and friends gave me lots of different advice about what I should do. Finally, I decided I would give birth to my baby and do the best job I could of raising him.
"I lived at home, but after Emmanuel was born my parents and I really had trouble getting along. One afternoon, I left. This was as far as my bus fare would take me. I've been staying at the Sixth Street Shelter. That's where I met Trudy and Ellen.
"They made sure I had some basic baby things for Emmanuel, and they invited me to come to church. As you might guess, I wasn't very comfortable in the church as a single mother. I could tell some of you weren't very comfortable that I was here either. Still, several of you went out of your way to make me and my baby feel welcome. I will always remember that.
"Pastor Sam has been a real encouragement, too. I was shocked when he asked if Emmanuel and I would be in the Christmas pageant. But he said it was an emergency and that Emmanuel would make a perfect Christ child. I didn't know that one of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel. Ellen told me that Emmanuel means 'God with us.'
"Yesterday, as I visited with Pastor Sam, I gave my heart to Christ. I saw God work among the people here, and He is what I wanted in my life. I called my parents right away to share the news with them. "They said they missed me and wanted Emmanuel and me to come home. I could tell they had been worried about us. They're driving over to watch the Christmas pageant this evening, and then we're all going home together.
"I just want to say thank you for accepting me and my baby. And thanks for letting me be in the pageant. The last two weeks have changed my life. I'll never forget you and I never want to forget what Jesus means to me."
That evening, people began arriving early for the pageant, nearly filling the sanctuary. No one remembered such a big crowd at Old Fourth.
The sanctuary choir was in rare form with favorites like "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Joy to the World," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and a few others. Everyone beamed as the angel choir gathered around little Emmanuel and sang "Away in a Manger." Several people wiped away tears.
Midway into the final song, "Silent Night," Emmanuel let out a giggle. Old Brother Raymond, momentarily confusing his holidays, shouted, "Praise God, He's alive!"
Hardly anyone noticed because God's spirit had descended in a mighty way at Old Fourth on this Christmas.
The congregation had been reminded that God was indeed with them. After that night, the pageant was never quite the same — and neither were the members of Fourth Avenue Baptist Church.
This is a story that could have been. It originally appeared in Word&Way on Dec. 18, 1997. (12-14-06)