TRAVERSE CITY — Huddled in the driver's seat of his truck parked outside New Hope Community Church, Kirk Elya rubbed his hands together in front of a heater vent. Clad in a desert shepherd costume complete with sandals, despite an inch or more of snow, Elya was trying to stay warm until the last of the congregants arrived for the Sunday service.
After the late-comers disappeared inside, Elya opened the back of his attached livestock trailer and unloaded Gunther the camel down a ramp and onto the blacktop drive. Draped in a green and gold blanket with matching halter tassels, the 1,600-pound camel calmly surveyed his surroundings before being led down a sidewalk to a church side door to await his entrance.
The 27-year-old camel was making a surprise appearance at the 10 a.m. service as a promotion for the church's upcoming event, "The Christmas Journey." The production, which opened Friday and runs through Sunday and Dec. 7-9, is a 30-minute narrated tour taking visitors along a wooded trail where volunteer church angels, shepherds, wise men, townspeople, Roman guards and, yes, Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, recreate the story of Christmas, from Creation to Bethlehem and beyond.
"I want people to experience what Mary and Joseph experienced," said Rick Stewart, New Hope's executive and worship pastor. "The whole point is an outreach. We want people to come and experience the Christmas journey and find the true meaning of Christmas."
The owner of Whispering Pines Mobile Zoo, Elya is providing Mary's donkey and the Three Kings' camels, as well as sheep, goats and other animals for the event. The Reed City business has been traveling to fairs, festivals, churches and schools in Michigan and surrounding states for more than 20 years, exhibiting farm and exotic animals.
Elya said at this time of year, he and his creatures are especially busy with church pageants and living nativities that call for animals of the sort common in Biblical times. Besides Williamsburg, Gunther, his "girlfriend" and two other camels will make appearances in Royal Oak, Indiana and several other locations this year, he said.
Stewart said "The Christmas Journey" involves about 300 of the church's 1,300 members, from trail blazers to set builders, costumers to actors, vocalists to instrumentalists. But few in the congregation knew in advance of the camel's cameo appearance at last Sunday's service.
"We're hoping the camel won't jump over a pew and run off or something," Stewart said a few days before.
About 25 minutes into the service, Stewart reminded the congregation of the upcoming production.
"We have a surprise for you," he announced, as a poster and music for the event cued up on speakers and overhead screens. Heads swiveled and cell phone cameras whipped out as Elya led Gunther down a side aisle from the back of the auditorium, preceded by three costumed kings.
After a brief stop in front of the stage, the procession exited the auditorium into the lobby, where Gunther posed for pictures and petting. After the service, he was set to meet some 200 children in the children's ministry area.
Elya said the camel has proven safe and steady around everything from bands to fireworks