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During Christmas, rural churches fill up with spirit, people

The actors sing "Silent Night" as the crowd joins in for the final song at a performance of the Holmes Live Nativity at the Ollman arena outside Reynolds, N.D., on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2016. Jesse Trelstad/Forum News Service

HOLMES, N.D. — Away in a manger was born Jesus Christ, surrounded by Mary, Joseph and animals.

The scene is one that is remembered on Christmas in Christian churches across the world, and this week hundreds gathered in the countryside about 10 miles northwest of Reynolds, N.D., where members of the Holmes United Methodist Church played out the Nativity scene — live animals and all — in Dwight and Sara Ollman’s horse arena.

The re-enactment has been done twice a night for two days for nearly three decades, the Rev. Sheri Fadley said. The Ollmans first saw another church performing a live Nativity scene, and they thought why not?

Soon, a church group started promoting and producing the scene, sometimes attracting as many as 1,500 to the four productions, Fadley said.

“It just has really been a family affair for us, hasn’t it?” said Joan Bahr, who played the archangel Gabriel. She’s been part of the event since it began 29 years ago.

Matthew Bahr, who has participated in the play almost every year for his whole life, agreed.

“It’s the one thing you come home for,” said Bahr, who has played Joseph for 10 years. “It’s amazing to see how full we are. We’ve been doing it for (29) years, and there are people every year that have never been here.

“There was one year somebody came from Russia. It’s just fun to see the variety of people.”

The event is reflective of how rural congregations are filled with Christmas spirit — and the churches usually are fuller with people — as they celebrate the birth of Jesus. For Holmes, the Christmas spirit may be stronger during the live Nativity scene because it brings people into the elements and back in time to when Jesus was born, which can help people start the year anew, Fadley said.

“There is some power in that, bringing people back to the rawness of his birth,” she said. “We have families that come back every year, because this is, for them — what Christmas is.”

Going local

Fadley leads services for three rural churches: Holmes, — located about 10 miles west of Reynolds and 30 miles southwest of Grand Forks — Beaver Creek Lutheran Church — located 12 miles west of Hatton, N.D., and about 50 miles southwest of Grand Forks — and Trinity Lutheran Church near Sharon, N.D., which is about 65 miles southwest of Grand Forks.

The Holmes church was founded in 1886 as the township attracted settlers from Europe. Over the years, the community shrank until nothing was left except the church.

“I think it is kind of cool that even though all of those other things have passed, the church is still here,” she said.

She said about 40 people attend the country church on a normal Sunday service, though during Christmas that number grows to about 50.

That tends to be the case for many churches in North Dakota as residents come home to visit their families, but the increase may be more noticeable in the smaller, rural congregations. The Rev. Sarah Raymond presides over three rural Lutheran churches near Grand Forks: East Walle about 8 miles south of Grand Forks, Evanger about 6 miles southwest of Grand Forks and Walle about 7 miles south of Grand Forks. Her oldest church was founded in 1876 and the youngest in 1895.

She said Christmas services can triple the size of her congregations.

“A lot of people have family home for the holidays, but I think a lot people come because it is a reminder of what was, and it reminds them of a time when things were simple,” she said. “I just think (the story of Jesus’ birth) is a simple story, and people just want to hear that.”

Family-dependent

Rural churches are dependent on families, particularly during the Christmas season, when children who have moved away come back to spend the holiday with relatives. In North Dakota, many communities, especially rural ones, have seen their populations grow older as more of the younger members migrate toward larger cities.

After being open for about a century, some churches in rural North Dakota have had to close in recent years due to dwindling numbers and increased bills.

However, some congregation members will drive miles into the country to go to their church, even though one of the same denomination is down the street in town. Raymond agreed it’s a testament of loyalty people have for their congregations.

“None of my churches are in a town; they are all out in the country,” she said. “Some people drive from Minnesota to come to one of my churches.”

She added family connections run deep, which, along with an intimate setting, make rural churches especially attractive.

“I think it is the family atmosphere,” she said. “I think people really want to feel connected together, and in a small church you can get to know everyone really well.

“I think overall knowing the person next to you is pretty important.”

Fadley and Raymond say they are seeing an influx of younger people coming to church, but they are hesitant to call the observation a trend. It’s too early to tell if the growth will continue, they said, but it is noteworthy.

“I would say, generally speaking, there is something that is changing,” Fadley said. “Something is kind of in the works.”

Prairie lights

The hospitality and intimate setting of rural churches set them apart from congregations in larger cities, Raymond said.

“It offers a little bit of peace in a chaotic world,” she said.

The atmosphere changes with more people in her church, Raymond said, adding there is more energy.

Fadley said rural churches can serve as connectors to the rest of the world. Rural churches and members of the congregations not only reach their corner of the world but also the rest of the globe, she said, adding it is important to have a global connection, whether people attend a church in rural America or the big city. Life can get hard, and church programs and the generosity of community members can come out in church life, she said.

“It’s like a thousand lights on the prairie, where every one of those churches still exists, there are people coming together,” she said. “The church is a place where they are able to share the love of Christ with other people.

“My hope as pastor is that Christ’s spirit is always alive, it doesn’t matter what week it is.”

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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