A story that never grows old

by Debra Haight (Herald-Palladium, March 12, 2005)

The Easter story will come alive at the third annual Andrews University Passion Play on Easter weekend.  The Passion Play takes place Saturday and Sunday, March 26 and 27, on the Andrews campus wiith a total of 21 performances scheduled. Tickets are free and can be reserved on-line at passionplay.andrews.edu, by calling (269) 471-8360, or by visiting area Christian bookstores.  The Passion Play covers the last week of Christ's life from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. The play begins inside Pioneer Memorial Church and ends in the Johnson gym, with the rest of the scenes outside.

Passion Play founder Ron Whitehead believes the play will give people a better understanding of the Easter story, no matter how well they think they know it from reading the Bible or watching movies about Christ's life.  "There is a connection when you see the Easter story on the screen, but something is missing," Whitehead said, "It's missing the sounds and smells and feel of a live outdoor presentation that takes you to another place."  He said a number of factors lead to that feel of authenticity. People attending the play will see many of the animals that would be found in a first-century marketplace, including horses, chickens, lambs, llamas, donkeys, pigeons, and doves.

Audience members also interact with those in the marketplace, including merchants, tax collectors and beggars.  "There's interaction with the actors--they'll come up and ask you questions," he said. "It really appeals to families, they can explain what's going on to their children between scenes. You can't do that in a movie theater."  Above everything else, Whitehead hopes the Passion Play will prove inspirational and uplifting for those who attend.  "Our overall goal is for people to see that Christ was a person who cared about people," he said. "He walked the Earth, had feelings and emotions, and loved using his gifts to heal people."  "His life represented a lot of highs and lows, and people will see both," he said. "The joys and sufferings he felt parallel our lives. He isn't just someone in a book. He was God-man, somebody we can relate to just as He related to us."  "The resurrection scene shows us that he rose from the dead and is coming back," he said. "We want to show the joy so that people can have hope. People may be uncertain or fearful with all that's going on in the word today, but our message is that everything's going to be OK. We want to show the beauty of his story and that there's peace in the chaos of life."

Whitehead said the idea to stage the Passion Play came out of his lifelong interest in dramatic productions, especially those with a strong religious message. Nearly three years ago, he got approval from Andrews officials to put on a Passion Play and set about organizing the effort.  The result has been a project that involves both students and community members as well as numerous area businesses and individuals who donate materials, time, and the use of animals for the production.  "I call it a project that gives salt in terms of flavor and light in terms of a positive image for the community," he said.  He said 610 people participated either as actors or volunteers last year and estimated that between 560 and 580 people will take part this year. Behind the scenes, people do many different jobs including making costumes, doing makeup, and building props and other items for scenes.

New to this year's Passion Play are two Spanish-only performances and a scene depicting an encampment of Roman soldiers to give people an idea of how the Israelites lived under Roman rule.  There's also an outreach this year to bring Benton Harbor youth from disadvantaged homes to the play.  "We're trying to be more intentional in bringing people from all over the area to the play," Whitehead said.  He said 5,000 people attended the first Passion Play in 2003 and nearly 10,000 attended last year. He's hoping to see between 8,000 and 10,000 come again this year. If past years are any indication, the play draws people from throughout Southwest Michigan and as far away as Detroit, Chicago and Grand Rapids.

Someone who has been working alongside Whitehead each year is his daughter, Heidi. Now a junior majoring in speech pathology, Heidi served as assistant director the first year and as co-director last year and this year. She said she got involved originally at the urging of her father, but also decided that it was a ministry in which she wanted to participate.   "My relationship with Jesus Christ has definitely gotten stronger being a part of the play," she said. "I've also seen how people's lives have been changed both from seeing it and being part of it. I've seen people who gain a totally new outlook on life after watching the performance and I've seen how it's changed some of the actors involved. It's neat to see how God has used the Passion Play to change people's lives."

Director Brit Steele and drama director Ben Juhl are both taking part in their second Passion Play at Andrews. Steele portrayed Peter in the first Passion Play and was overseas teaching in the Philippines last year. Juhl moved into the area two years ago and was one of those portraying Jesus in last year's play.  Steele, a senior international business student at Andrews, said the Passion Play adds a sense of realism to the Easter story.  "You can picture it better," he said. "It makes the story come alive. When you read it, it means a lot more when you can visualize it. Our No. 1 goal is that we want it to affect people."  Steele said he hopes area residents see the play as a community event, both in terms of participants and audience.  "Just because it's on the Andrews campus doesn't mean that it's only us (the students and faculty) who are doing it," he said.  He sees the Passion Play as helping to fulfill both his professional and spiritual goals.  "From a business aspect, one of my goals is to learn how to manage a large operation like this," he said. "Personally and spiritually, the play helps me draw closer to Christ."

Juhl is an Elkhart resident who is also a piano maker. He read about the first Passion Play and decided to get involved last year because he enjoys taking part in drama ministries.  "If I'm in the area in coming years, I'll absolutely participate," he said. "It's a joy--it's kind of my thing."  He said portraying Jesus was more life affirming than life changing for him.  "I did spend a lot of time reading the Gospel," he said. "I think anybody who does something like this gains a great blessing."  The Last Supper was one part of the Easter story that took on greater significance for him and one in which he felt God instilled in him a sense of joy as he took on the role of Jesus.  "I realized on a 'heart level' that he was ministering to his disciples in a way that would stick with them because he knew he was leaving," he said. "I realized the concern he had for them, and that was new to me.  "He knew the end was near as he was trying to teach and reach them," he said. "But there was still a layer of joy in that. The scene foreshadows the crucifixion, but he's so grateful for those last few hours with his disciples."