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This is 'our gift to the city'

More than 500 volunteers from Bell Shoals Baptist Church worked on the play.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

This weekend, Jesus is coming to the Florida State Fairgrounds.

"We feel that we've got a story that we want people to hear and be changed by," said Jesus, better known to friends as Lee Snow, a graphic designer at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon. "To me, that's exciting."

Snow has the lead role of Jesus Christ in Bell Shoals' 2003 passion play, Amazing Love -- A Journey to Jesus. The play bows tonight with a performance at 7 p.m., and Saturday with performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

With an audience of more than 7,000 in each of the past two years, Bell Shoals' depiction of the Easter story has become the church's biggest annual project. Each year's play is written, produced, constructed and scored almost entirely by members of the congregation.

"It's huge," said drama director Theresa Miller. "From January on, this is what we as a church are basically working on."

The scope of the church's passion play is extensive. More than 500 volunteers from the church, including a 180-person voice choir and a cast of 150, perform the play each year on a stage measuring 136 feet by 64 feet -- the largest stage ever constructed at the fairgrounds' Expo Hall. Nix said the stage takes up nearly one full side of the room.

The play is also technologically complex, with a pair of 12'x16' screens showing pre-taped video segments and close-ups of the stage from five camera angles. An interpreter will also be at Saturday night's performance to sign the show for the hearing impaired.

"It's a huge undertaking, involving hundreds of people and thousands of man-hours to make it happen," said Dr. Forrest Pollack, Bell Shoals' senior pastor. "Those in our congregation who can swing a hammer but may not be skilled at teaching a Sunday School class -- this gives them an opportunity to use that gift."

Passion plays, which follow the end of Jesus' life, from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, are commonly performed at Christian churches around Easter.

Amazing Love -- A Journey to Jesus is based on scripture from the Gospels -- the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- and select other verses from the Bible. The play is peppered with original musical compositions and dialogue written by churchgoers, but Nix said they try to keep it close to the original text.

Bell Shoals' passion play has grown hugely popular since it was first performed six years ago in the church's 1,300-seat worship center. Word spread quickly after the success of the inaugural show, and organizers soon knew they had to move to a bigger venue.

"In the second and third year, we were running out of tickets, and there were too many people that still wanted to come," Miller said. "The community was calling for it."

When the church selected the Fairgrounds as its new venue, participation went "through the roof" at the 7,000-member church, said director Simeon Nix.

"People saw the need to be involved even more, and saw it as a labor of love to the community, as an opportunity to minister and to help the community celebrate Easter," he said.

Miller said she's not surprised by how much the play has grown into its new home.

"People know where the Fairgrounds are," she said, "and if something big is going to the Fairgrounds, people are going to want to know what it is."

The play has attracted 15,000 people over the last two years, and Nix said he expects this to be the biggest crowd yet.

"My prayer is that we'll see no less than 10,000 people there, if not 12,000 to 15,000," Nix said. "When you're with the Lord, you aim high."

Tickets are $5 for the evening shows and $3 for the Saturday afternoon show. Nix said that money doesn't cover the cost of the play -- only the cost of renting the building. He declined to say how much the play cost to produce.

"The ticket price only covers a small fraction of the total cost," Pollock said. "It's really our gift to the city."

Pollock, who came to Bell Shoals in November, is looking forward to seeing his congregation put on the show for the first time.

"This is my first passion play to see, so I'm as anxious as the rest of Tampa, St. Pete, Brandon and Valrico to see this thing," he said.

-- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or .

'Amazing Love -- A Journey to Jesus'

When: 7 p.m. tonight, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Expo Hall, Florida State Fairgrounds, 4800 US Highway 301 N., Tampa Parking is free.

Tickets: $5 for evening performances, $3 for the Saturday matinee. Tickets are available at Bell Shoals Baptist Church, 2102 Bell Shoals Road in Brandon, and at area Christian bookstores.

Details: 689-4229, Ext. 510.

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