An age-old story and a Burlco tradition

At the Fountain of Life Center in Burlington Township , (from left) Jimmy Roleson as a Roman soldier, Joel Lunetta as Jesus, and Larry Christiansen as Pontius Pilate act out a scene from Christ's Passion. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
At the Fountain of Life Center in Burlington Township , (from left) Jimmy Roleson as a Roman soldier, Joel Lunetta as Jesus, and Larry Christiansen as Pontius Pilate act out a scene from Christ's Passion. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 01, 2013

They have been coming by bus or car from as far away as Florida - nearly 27,000 of them - every year for the last 31.

Most are believers. Others are looking for something to believe in and are praying they will find it as they watch He Is Alive, about the last seven days of Jesus' life, unfolding on the stage of the sanctuary of the Fountain of Life Center in Burlington Township.

For nearly two hours Saturday afternoon, 400 members of the Assemblies of God congregation took the stage, re-creating every event - from Christ's entry into Jerusalem to the Last Supper, his arrest and trial, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

The production - which Associate Pastor David B. Boudwin said cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, much of it borne by the members and some reserved-ticket sales and post-performance collections - is a massive undertaking with contemporary music and high-tech effects.

Tech director Chris Owens produces 35 to 40 buckets of dry ice for every performance, some for the Garden of Gethsemane and the visit to Hell, but mostly for spectacular scenes of the Resurrection and Ascension. As Christ and the angels look down, the stage and audience area fill with dry-ice "smoke" - so much so that nothing a few feet off the floor is visible.

Cast and crew carry the production off 14 times every year, with two performances on weekend days during Lent, devoting thousands of hours and, in most cases, their vacations to rehearsals that begin in mid-February.

They even clean up the sanctuary before and after performances, with the Rev. Randy Berkaw, associate pastor and director, running out for pizza for 400-plus as soon as the 2 p.m. show ends so everything will be ready by the 7 p.m. production.

They are not professional actors, said the Rev. Patricia Miller, associate pastor, but volunteers - called, said Larry Christiansen, who has played Pontius Pilate for 15 years, "to be servants."

That call, Miller said, is something 87-year-old Senior Pastor Paul Graban "continually emphasizes to us."

Christiansen said he felt like a "necessary part" of it, a "piece of that puzzle that allows us to see the redemption story."

Feeling the Spirit

For Joel Lunetta, portraying Jesus for the first time this year, it is a humbling experience.

"There are moments in the garden [of Gethsemane] and just before the Crucifixion where it is just God and me," he said.

In his performance, "I feel the Spirit working through me," said Lunetta, adding that he grew up involved in the pageants.

He Is Alive and the 12-performance Christmas pageant that draws 20,000 annually are just two of the ways the church reaches out to the community and the world.

Where the pageants are "making a joyful noise," as in the admonition of Psalm 100, the other programs are quieter yet very effective, the pastors said.

The church is the county's emergency shelter, and during Hurricane Sandy, it housed 250 residents, Miller said.

Members counsel men and women in the probation system, operate a food bank, work with the homeless in Philadelphia, and with those with special needs and people addicted to drugs and alcohol.

The list of outreach efforts fills three pages and probably doesn't include individual members' efforts because, as Boudwin said, "God is impressed when you talk to him from your heart."

This year, Miller said proudly, the girls' basketball team of the K-12 Life Center Academy won the National Association of Christian Athletes tournament and will participate in a National High School Invitation in Bethesda, Md., on Thursday.

Juniors at the academy sold flowers after the afternoon performance to finance a mission trip next spring, said Associate Pastor Billy Rhoades, who had just returned from the Dominican Republic with the senior class.

Range of emotions

"I went to Christiana High School in Delaware in the 1960s," Rhoades said. "Our class trip was to the Cherry Hill Mall."

But it was the pageant that everyone came to see Saturday, and what happened on stage drew the full range of emotions from the audience, from clapping for the music and the dancing to yelling not only at the crowds and the High Priest Caiaphas, who condemned Jesus, but at the Apostle Peter, who denied knowing him three times.

"He told you you would!" a woman in the audience shouted as Peter confessed to the Apostle Andrew what he had done.

The graphic Hell scene, in which Jesus lay on a table awaiting the Resurrection, was preceded by a warning to children in the audience.

Miller said Satan sometimes joins the members of the cast to meet the audience after the performance, "and some of the little kids kick him."


Contact Alan J. Heavens

at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or follow @alheavens at Twitter.

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