Hundreds strolled down Locust Street on Friday night.
Just a block away from the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival, First United Methodist Church continued the community celebration with hot chocolate, model trains and a tiny wriggling baby in a manger.
While the holiday lighting mixes the secular and sacred at one of the biggest annual local events, downtown United Methodists host “Evening in Bethlehem.”
The Rev. Don Lee stood by the doors leading to Cole Chapel and Flinn Hall, greeting families with a jolly “Merry Christmas.” Lee, the senior pastor, said the congregation couldn’t pass up an opportunity like the lighting festival to spread both good cheer and its message of Christian love.
“Obviously, we’re a church,” Lee said. “Our mission is to shine God’s love into every life. This is an extension of that mission.”
Families had a lot to take in at the church Friday night. A petting zoo brought a pen full of goats, kids, a fuzzy donkey and a hairy, irritable pony, a sheep or two, a yearling calf and two imperious-looking llamas. Children (as well as some teenagers and adults) swarmed the petting zoo to hug the animals and offer strands of dry St. Augustine grass out to velvety muzzles.
Lee said about 60 volunteers gathered to stage “Evening in Bethlehem.” Model train enthusiasts set up tables in Flinn Hall Lounge and Flinn Hall. Model trains — big, small, modern and vintage in their appearance — chugged around tables. Some were more elaborate than others, with the trains passing towns, rural businesses and silos. Some were simple. Children were enchanted, and volunteers explained how the model trains worked.
In Cole Chapel, volunteers dressed as Mary and Joseph watched over a wiggling baby. The lights were low, and some people scurried into the pews to watch while others came to the altar, looked at the live Nativity tableau and then left quietly.
A local Boy Scout troop grilled 750 hot dogs. By 7:30 p.m., the hot dogs were gone.
But the Rev. Mauricio Orozco, who leads the church’s Hispanic ministry, said members of the ministry hadn’t run out of the rich hot chocolate, cookies or crackers offered to visitors. The growing ministry attracts anywhere from 50-60 Spanish-speaking Christians to Bible study and worship each Sunday. Members of the ministry handed out hot chocolate and snacks, while wishing visitors “Feliz Navidad” and “Merry Christmas.” The ministry draws people from Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Honduras and Columbia.
“We’re just here to invite people to church,” he said. Their booth was among the busiest, with Spanish songs piped over speakers.
As a surge of families moved toward the church, where the children’s choir, youth choir and youth orchestra played on the front steps, one woman steered her little ones toward the chapel.
“You want to go see the baby Jesus?” she asked.
The little girl with her answered by breaking into a run that was a detour.
“First the goats!” she said, and took off with a squeal.