Massive Nativity Collection Represents More Than Just The Christmas Story

Dec 23, 2013

‘Tis the season for the drone of cheery Christmas music. You’re even bombarded with it at the gym. It’s easy to get stressed out or even blue during the holidays. But at a small Presbyterian church in Richland, one pastor has been trying to spread a little solace with an unusual exhibit.

A Case Of Post-Traumatic Pastoral Distress

About 20 Christmases ago, Neil Allen was in a funk. 

“I was just going through PTSD — you know, post traumatic pastoral distress, and because the season is so secular,” he said.

Back then, Allen was the pastor at a Presbyterian church in a poor neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He saw so much want and need around him, and he was frustrated.

“And to see that all year long — all year long! — and for people to say in December, ‘Oh, I want to do something,’ well, great. But I want to open them to a deeper sense of giving, and justice and fairness in the world,” Allen said.

Pastors aren’t supposed to get down during one of the churches’ happiest holidays, says Allen. But he was. So his wife intervened. 

“She gave me an assignment to put up the nativity that year,” said Allen.

‘It Just Exploded’

At his wife’s request, Allen put up the crèche, the scene of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and little figurines of wisemen and shepherds, too.

Allen suddenly began to notice “some real artistry.”

“And I was pointing out things to her, and she was like, ‘I know, I know.’ And when I opened my Christmas presents, this set right here was in there. Then it went from one, two, three, to I don’t remember. It just exploded,” he said.

People gave him their family heirloom sets. He started bidding on art pieces. And his family and congregations gave him even more nativity scenes.

Ultimately, he ended up with nearly 400 sets from around the world. And all of them are now on display at his current church in Richland where they take up so much room that Allen had to get the pulpit out of the way. The display is 36 feet wide and five tiers deep.

Some who visit the huge collection find it hard to express what they’re taking in. 

“Well, I’m a little hesitant to tell you about this one man that came through. He came through the door, and most people say, ‘Wow!’ and, ‘Whoa!’ and things like that,” said Allen.

But this man exclaimed an expletive. 

“But it was heartfelt. And it was the only words he had. So I just listened and he expressed it three to four times. And then all of a sudden, he said, ‘Wow.’ He got clear to ‘Wow,’ which is why I do this,” said Allen.

Among The Variety, One Special Set

For the most part, Allen hopes his display helps people who are feeling like he did when he unwrapped that first crèche, a bit grumpy. 

“By doing this, by showing this, I can bring attention back to a deeper meaning of the season, which is shalom [or peace],” said Allen.

Allen’s crèches are from all over the world and are made of all kinds of materials.

“I’m seeing glass figures. I’m seeing ceramic figures, clay figures, wood, coke cans, banana leaves,” he said.

One of the sets is made of the lowliest of materials, a shoebox and toilet paper rolls. But it carries some of the deepest meaning. A 4-year-old girl made it. Her dying mother gave the set to Allen, pleading that he hold it in safekeeping until the girl was older. 

“I’m waiting for her to have her first child, and I’m going to box it up and send it back to her,” he said.

That girl married just a few weeks ago.