Live sheep, music, dancing, strolling shoppers and a roving tax collector were all part of a scene that met "tourists" visiting the first century Holy Land at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center this week.
An intergenerational vacation Bible school organized jointly by Lutheran Church of the Living Word and Columbia United Christian Church, "Passport to the Holy Land" re-created various cities - Nazareth, Jerusalem, Capernaum, Bethlehem and Bethany - on five consecutive nights from Sunday to yesterday.
This was not the typical vacation Bible school.
"We're putting people into the environment," explained the Rev. Bill Hayman, pastor of the Church of the Living Word. "We go back in time to try to get a sense of what life was like when Jesus lived and learned and taught."
Participants experienced the smells of bread and the selling of wares.
"It's an opportunity to get people into a different environment using their imaginations," Hayman said.
After a shared dinner, visitors were divided into groups of 10 and assigned a "tour guide." With their guide, they toured the featured city, participated in crafts and listened to professional storytellers relate Old Testament stories that the young Jesus might have heard.
"Going back in time helps people to see and understand the many similarities between human cultures ... much is the same over 2,000 years," said the Rev. Betty Ure, assistant pastor of Columbia United. "We all share basic values in caring for one another and the Earth that transcend time and are universal."
Ure said the fact that almost everyone was in costume helped break down barriers between people, encouraging those of different ages and congregations to interact.
"I was the beggar," Ure said, "and I was amazed at the number of children who came up to give me something. They brought me cookies and crackers, and gave me money from their money pouches. It was really rather touching."
For Sue Carpenter, who co-directed the program with Ure, the success of Bible school was in the mix of ages.
"Of the 77 people who signed up, only 21 were children," she said. "I've been absolutely thrilled with how it's gone - it has been very intergenerational. I'm amazed at the number of people without children who have come."
"It was meaningful to me because it was not just for children. We all interacted," Ure added.
Hayman noted that young adults without children can be difficult to integrate into church activities.
"It's a wonderful blessing" that they took part, he said. "They can get support on their journey of faith."
He calls the experience "a wonderful fellowship" and "a chance for people to get to know other folks in their congregation and the other congregations."
In addition to the cooperation between the Lutheran church and the Columbia United Christian Church (itself a combination of the United Church of Christ, Church of the Brethren and Disciples of Christ), the Columbia Jewish Congregation also participated in the Bible school.
On Tuesday night, Rabbi George Driesen of the Columbia congregation talked to the "tourists" about what Jewish temple life in the first century might have been like.
"It was a broad-based message, not just New Testament," Hayman said. "We encourage people to process things ... and we encourage them to share with us what they have learned."
Ure said, "It's been exciting. We hope to do this again, using this Bible school as a model. I've noticed that throughout the country, more churches are doing this kind of thing."