Storm thwarts plans for annual Night in the Barn

Michelle Unruh portrays Mary and Josh Booth portrays Joseph at Night in the Barn in 2011. This year?s edition was canceled because of the weekend snowstorm. This would have been the 17th year for the event, which serves as a fundraiser for the Tabor Mennonite Youth Fellowship.It?s possible that for a few tradition-minded folks, the Christmas season will be past before it officially begins.

One of the casualties of the weekend snowstorm was the cancellation of Night in the Barn, the annual live nativity event on the farm yard of Carol Duerksen and Maynard Knepp between Hillsboro and Goessel.

That turn of events could be upsetting for some fans.

?For some people, it?s like, ?This is what we do?Christ?mas doesn?t start unless we come here,?? Duerksen said about the feed?back they get from participants. ?It?s just a done deal for them.

?We also hear adults saying, ?Our kids are like, ?Are we going tonight?? For them it?s also an automatic.?

Sorry, not this year.

The couple initially canceled only Saturday night?s event with the hope that skies would clear on Sunday and the snow wouldn?t create an obstacle by evening.

Their hopes were only half fulfilled: the skies did clear.

?With 5 inches of snow on the ground, and with limited equipment to move it, we just couldn?t get the yard prepared,? Duerksen said.

A stable start

This would have been the 17th year for Night in the Barn. The couple launched the project in December 1997. The only other time the show did not go in was in the aftermath of the 2007 ice storm.

Night in the Barn is a project of the Tabor Menno?nite Youth Fellowship, which uses funds raised through the donations of guests to finance their annual service projects and a trip to youth conference.

In the mid-1990s, Menno?nite Church USA launched a ?Day on the Farm? program to provide an opportunity for city kids to be exposed to the amenities of rural life. Duerksen and Knepp organized and led the event on their Dayspring Farm.

?A year or two later, the thought came to me, we?ve got Day on the Farm?what would the winter version of that be?? Duerksen said.

The couple came up with the ?Night in the Barn? concept as an off-season complement to Day on the Farm.

?We gave it a name, so then we had to do something about that,? Duerksen joked.

The old wooden barn on the Dayspring yard is the focal point, appropriately. Inside it, youth group members communicate various aspects of the Christmas story through poems, skits and other creative expressions.

As visitors arrive, they gather around the outdoor bonfire to sing carols and enjoy hot drinks and Christ?mas snacks. Other youth then form the people into groups and lead them to the barn for the presentation.

Every youth group member has a job to do.

?It?s really not optional,? Duerksen said with a laugh. ?If you?re in the youth group, you participate in Night in the Barn because there?s a lot of roles to fill.?

The roles of Mary and Joseph are key, of course, but program content varies from year to year, based on the talents and interests of the youth.

?We create skits that match with them,? Duerk?sen said. ?For instance, if we have a wonderful female singer, she?s probably going to be Mary. If we have a wonderful guy, he might be Joseph.?

This year the plan was to feature the perspective of the innkeeper and shepherd. from their perspective.

Animal stars

As talented as the kids may be, Duerksen said the stars of the show are the live animals that join the cast.

Each year Duerksen and Knepp hope one of their cows and ewes will provide new offspring for the weekend. The couple permit their animals to reproduce year round, so there are no guarantees. But usually the animals deliver on schedule.

?Sure enough two days ago, there was new calf out in the pasture,? Duerksen said late last week. ?So far, almost every year there?s one that?s fairly new.?

The couple also recruit two other crowd favorites, the llama and a pair of donkeys they own.

?These donkeys, they know it?s happening?they love it,? Duerksen said. ?They can?t wait to get into the barn that day.?

She said the two donkeys will actually rest their heads on people?s shoulders as they stand by the stall.

?People have said, ?My gosh that?s a heavy donkey head.? So that?s fun?and the donkeys love it,? Duerksen said.

Making an impact

Night in the Barn has grown from its initial draw of 205 people in 1997?based on Duerksen?s record-keeping. Average attendance for the two-night event is usually 300 to 400 people, with an all-time high of 745 in 2006.

?Sometimes it?s related to weather?when the roads are slick, people are hesitant,? Duerksen said about the fluctuation in attendance, ?But if it?s just cold, that doesn?t affect it as much. People come because they bundle up and they?re only in the barn for 15 to 20 minutes, then they?re done.?

As a fundraiser, the event usually raises about $1,000 for youth-group projects. Last year, generosity reached an all-time high when donations reached $1,690.

?For the kids to give basically a couple hours for two nights? work, that?s a good fundraiser for the amount of time they put into it,? Duerksen said.

Beyond the fun and the funds, Duerksen said Night in the Barn has touched some people on a deeper level, too.

?In the midst of this very simple, imperfect scene, the message is still communicated, and God?s spirit still comes to those who visit,? Duerksen said.

?We had a guy here last year who asked the person next to him, ?You mean Joseph wasn?t Jesus?s real father?? The person explained about God?s spirit making Mary pregnant and that Jesus was the son of God and Joseph was his earthly father.

?This man was amazed and said he didn?t know that. Wow!?

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