Passion play is becoming an Easter tradition

By DEBRA HAIGHT - H-P Correspondent

BERRIEN SPRINGS - In seven short years, the Andrews University passion play has become an Easter tradition for many area residents. Whether they volunteer or come as a visitor, people find that it helps them remember the true meaning of the holiday.

This Saturday, the Andrews passion play tradition will be renewed after a one-year hiatus. The play was not performed last year because Andrews students were on spring break at Easter.  In a change from past years, the play will be performed on just one day instead of two. To make up for that, performances will start earlier in the day - at 9 a.m. - and run later, with the last performance starting at 6.  Spanish-speaking rotations will be offered at 3 and 5:30 p.m.  While the event is free, reservations are required and can be made by going to the Web site or by calling 471-8360.

Over a 90-minute period, visitors will be transported back to first-century Israel and experience the events of Holy Week from Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to his death and resurrection. The play starts at the Howard Performing Arts Center and ends at Johnson Gym.  Ron Whitehead, now the assistant to the president for spiritual life, has been the driving force behind the production since it began in 2003. He now serves as executive producer of the event and has seen it grow to where community members now see it as one of the area's assets.  It was Whitehead's idea to have a passion play on the Andrews campus. His childhood experience of seeing passion plays and a glimpse of what life was like at the time of Christ had always stayed with him, even as he's attended ones in other parts of the world, including the famous play in Oberammergau, Germany.  "As a little kid growing up, my family would go to passion plays in Orlando and Memphis," he said. "I remembered walking through the different scenes, smelling the smells and hearing the noises. I remembered even reaching out and touching the person portraying Jesus.  "I said why not turn the Andrews campus into a theatrical stage. We did some research, and we found that there was no one doing a passion play from here to Kentucky."

The result has been an event that regularly draws nearly 10,000 people to the campus. One of the lowest attended events was the 2007 play, which he said students still call the winter passion play because a snowstorm forced most of the play inside.  "We thought about canceling it, but the students took nearly everything inside, they said it was the story of Christ, and they were going to share it," he said.  "We had families who came in their snowsuits, and they said the passion play was a family tradition they couldn't miss.  "That shows the power of the story. People want to to get around the story of Christ, and parents love it because they can share the story of Jesus with their children in between scenes."

Whitehead said he's impressed anew each year with the dedication of the students, especially those who choose to portray Christ.  "Each has been so diligent in memorizing lines and rereading the Scripture," he said. "They say it's the best decision they've ever made."  He also has been moved by the response visitors have after seeing the passion play.  "We have a memory book people can sign afterward, and I see entries over and over about how powerful an impression the play made," he said. "They talk about making a new commitment or rededicating their lives."  He thinks the experience might be more powerful than usual this year with the current hard economic times.  "I think people will seek God in a different way this Easter weekend," he said.

Richard Parke, a 2005 Andrews graduate, returns as the event director, coordinating everything from the actors to the shops and live animals in the marketplace. He's been in every play, doing everything from appearing as a carpenter the first year to working behind the scenes.  He now works as an information technology specialist at his family's medical office in Buchanan but makes it a point to come back for the play.  As he's done the last few years, Parke is coordinating the efforts of nearly 500 volunteers who give of their time to present the play to the community.  Changes that have been put in place for this year include a new Last Supper scene and prayer and hospitality tents outside Johnson Gym.

Three people who have been there every year to be a part of the passion play are Bonny and Garren Dent and Mickey Kutzner. Kutzner and Bonny Dent teach at Andrews, and Garren Dent owns the Village Do-It Best Hardware store in Berrien Springs.  The Dents also bring their three children. In a change from past years, they're not portraying a family in the marketplace but dividing up to do different jobs. Bonny Dent and their daughter will still be in the marketplace, Garren Dent will be a Roman soldier, and their two sons will be working behind the scenes.  "We heard that they were going to do it the first year," Bonny Dent said. "I knew the kids were too young and I was too busy to go to practice, but we could be a family in the market. We could do it together as a family. We borrowed a tent and researched what we should have.  "For us, it's another special way to celebrate Easter. It's not just about bunnies and eggs, but the true meaning of the day.  "Last year, everyone really missed it. People just love it, they can't imagine spending Easter anywhere else. It's so powerful and meaningful to them ... You know you're not in that time and place, but it still helps you think back to what it would have been like then."

This year, the family's horse will also take part in the play with her husband, Garren, riding him.  "It worked out perfect this year," she said. "The play's animal director owned the horse before we did and she knows him. He's good in a crowd and he looks big and strong."  Garren Dent said he decided to take on the part of a mounted Roman soldier this year after hearing that organizers needed someone else on a horse. He will be in a scene where the soldiers capture Barrabas and walk him over to where he's held.  He said the experience has been an enjoyable one for his family.  "At the beginning we had fun developing our characters and deciding what we were going to sell in the market," he said. "It really has become part of our Easter celebration."

Kutzner will also be one of the mounted soldiers, a role he's played in every passion play.  "I was one of the few men who could ride, so they asked me to do it," he said. "There are a lot of volunteers, I'm just a tiny part of it."  He said the experience never gets old.  "What moves me is to see the way the people respond to the play," he said. "If we can bring the story of Christ to reality for people and help them make a decision in their lives, it's all worth it."