Nativity comes to life at Bensonhurst church

While many churches in Brooklyn like to remind residents of what Christians consider the real meaning of Christmas by displaying a Nativity scene outside their houses of worship, one Bensonhurst church takes that theme a step farther.

Instead of plastic figures representing Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, and the baby Jesus in the stable, the Nativity scene on the front lawn of the New Utrecht Reformed Church on 18th Avenue featured real people portraying the key figures in Biblical history. The one exception was the Baby Jesus, who was represented by a small doll in the manger.

Volunteers from the church dressed in costumes depicting the clothing worn at the time of Christ’s birth and stood next to the manger in a makeshift stable while sheep and goats munched on the grass. Yes, the live Nativity scene also featured real live animals.

The church presented the Nativity scene for one day, on Dec. 15. “It’s our gift to the community,” Susan Hanyen, vice president of the church’s consistory, or parish council, said as she stood on the front lawn and watched with delight as local residents came up to take a closer look at the display. "We want to give people a sense of what it must have been like when Jesus was born," she said. From the looks on the faces of visitors, the church memebrs succeeded. Looking at the Nativity scene was like stepping into a time machine.

“I think what’s remarkable about it is that we are in the middle of an urban area and yet when you’re standing next to it (the stable), the street noises go away. You don’t hear the cars. You don’t hear the horns,” Hanyen said.

John Christman brought his family from Bay Ridge to see the display. His daughter Olivia enjoyed feeding the sheep. “You don’t see a live Nativity every day. I think it’s great. It’s really unique,” he said.

The church has been offering a live Nativity scene every Christmas season for more than 40 years, Hanyen said. “We used to have it over three days. Now we present it in one day. Last year, we couldn’t afford the animals, so we had it without them. It’s very expensive to rent them. We rent them from a farm. It costs over $800 to rent them, even for just a couple of hours,” she said.

It looked as if there would be no sheep and goats again this year until a friend of the church, Alan Folstein, stepped forward and donated the funds to pay for the animals, Hanyen said.

The animals were rented from Honky Tonk Ranch, a New Jersey farm.

The New Utrecht Reformed Church was found in 1677. The current church building was constructed in 1828. The grounds, located on 18th Avenue between 83rd and 84th Streets, also include a parish house constructed in the 1890s that boasts a Tiffany stained glass window. The Rev. Terry Troia is the church pastor.