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South Laurel's Tabernacle portrays Easter, one scene at a time

Those looking for the Scenes of Easter performed outside the Super Grand grocery on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday last year can find the production back at home in the rear parking lot of the Tabernacle Church on South Laurel Drive.

The Easter drive-through — which organizers say was designed to glorify Jesus and share the gospel with the community— has become an annual tradition at the multi-cultural church since performances began in 1994, when Jack and Jean Coleman were pastors.

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Drama directors and husband and wife, Dave and Marge Martin — who've worshipped at Tabernacle for 36 years — said they remember how traffic tangled up the Baltimore/Washington Parkway when thousands of people flocked to see the outdoor play in its inception.

In the beginning,silent actors from the congregation posed as statues on individual sets that depicted 10 scenes from the gospel. But,Marge Martin said, children and the men playing Jesus on the cross found it too strenuous to remain motionless in the night air.

When senior pastor Bishop G.Randolph Gurley and his wife, Dr. Manon Gurley, came to Tabernacle a few years later, Martin said she and Dave took over as the drama directors, and began adding "little movements and little dialogues" until the scenes grew "very animated."

The passion play has been performed in a visible spot at the shopping center parking lot as a walk-through for the past two Easters, but the church didn't get permits this year.

Instead, the scenes are being prepared to come to life again on Thursday and Friday, April 2 and 3 at 7:45 p.m. behind the church in South Laurel.

The Martins said they have reduced the number of scenes (and sets) to fit the space and reprised the  drive-through format.

Actors relivingJesus's story will perform six scenes, and "freeze" in place only between repetitions of their performances, as new audience members drive — or walk — their way through the scenes, which include the Last Supper, Peter's denial, the trial before Pilate, the road to Cavalry,the Crucifixion, a garden scene and a heaven scene.

The Martins said individual scene captains take charge of rehearsals and props and lead the prayers before performances. Sometimes, but not always,all the actors — who are volunteers from the congregation — are able to pray together before going on stage.

This year, there will be four different people portraying Jesus, who by tradition is played by church members from different nations.

The Crucifixion will be symbolized visually rather than enacted, with special lighting shining on a cross draped in a bloody covering. Martin said it is too difficult to "engineer" a cross to safely suspend actors of different sizes.

A camel named Junior, a donkey named Mary and a few other live animals from Wilson's Wild Animal Park, in Winchester,Va., will be rented again this year.

Gurley said the animals are well trained to be docile in crowd situations.The same animals appeared in a living nativity choir of Tabernacle Church and Faith in Action members that circled from the Capitol to the Supreme Court during a Christmas event two years ago.

Owner Keith Wilson stays on site during the performances. He said the Tabernacle actors handle his animals easily, even though "Mary can be a little stubborn about wearing her costume sometimes."

"[The animals]are absolutely perfect," Wilson said. "They are very agreeable and will do anything you ask of them."

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'Blessing to the community'

As audience members enter the starting gate, they receive printed programs that link each scene to its Biblical reference as they drive or walk through the story.

Gurley said the event "has always been a big blessing to the community," especially for seniors or people who are disabled, who can stay in their cars. Vans from senior centers and other churches have driven through in years past.

"I think the beauty of this is that you have dialogue," Marge Martin said, referring to real-time conversations between viewers about the living Bible study they are seeing.

She said the Scenes of Easter are being billed as a play rather than a dramatization because the interpreted word has no meaning in the multi-cultural community. But Hurley and the Martins agree that there are many dramatic moments to experience.

Martin said she findsPeter's denial riveting, particularly when Peter falls to the ground crying,"What have I done? What have I done?"

The road to Cavalry also evokes raw emotions that are amplified, she said, by the penetrating gaze of the deaf actor who usually portrays Jesus.

And Hurley said,"People are weeping when they see Jesus carrying the cross."

Dave Martin, who creates all the sets, said he was deeply touched last year seeing a young man at the shopping center return in 15–20minute intervals to stand with bowed head staring at Jesus on the throne in the heaven scene.

"I counted four times," he said. "I just thought, 'Wow.'"

Marge Martin remembers seeing "a man collapse on his knees at the altar and cry and cry and cry.

"He was just repenting," she said.

The Martins saidit's not unusual for non-believers to repent after participating in the Easter scenes with their spouses.

"This has happened many times," Marge Martin said.

This year, as usual, Gurley and his wife will greet visitors and speak to anyone who wants to ask questions, while the Martins will oversee any production concerns for all of the scenes as Wilson keeps an eye on his animals.

Marge Martin described the heaven scene — the set where angels are played by church elders with a enthroned Jesus wearing a robe made of flags from all over the world — as more than a grand finale. It is a place where those in need can ask for counseling, and Bibles will be on hand for those who need them.

Cars will be guided through the play, she said; but walkers, who may park in the front lot, will be self-directed.

Marge Martin said the performance "is not about joining the church, it's about changing your life,"and the true meaning of Easter.

"Kids will never get eternal life from a bunny," she said.

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