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April 13, 2014

‘Passion in the Park’ re-enacts birth, trial, crucifixion, resurrection of Jesus

TERRE HAUTE — Many say it is a life-changing experience that brings the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus to life. It is certainly a community effort driven by a desire of many volunteer Christians who come together to express their passion for the passion of Jesus Christ. These performers provide the Biblical story of the birth, trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in Fairbanks Park every year through a dozen 45-minute shows over four evenings.

“Passion in the Park” is a non-denominational, interactive, community-performed drama of the Easter story, free and open to the public.

“There really isn’t a question as to whether or not Jesus Christ was a real person,” program creator Lori Aplin said. Aplin is creator and director of the not-for-profit Senior Education Ministries in Terre Haute.

“There is secular history, as well as Biblical, that tells about him walking and talking on earth and about his crucifixion and resurrection,” Aplin said. “The question is whether or not you believe him to be the son of God. ‘Passion in the Park’ tries to bring the story of Jesus to life, and it has been life-changing for many people. We see it happen every year.”

Aplin, with the assistance of her husband Budd, said they began the program, now in its sixth year, against all odds. “The Holy Spirit so greatly convicted me that I felt compelled to start the program in 2009, even with only weeks to spare, no location to hold the event and no money for props or anything,” she said. “There were lots of reasons why we shouldn’t have been able to do it.” But to her amazement, they got through all the red tape so quickly that she was overwhelmed. “Every hurdle was overcome immediately.”

But then, to their disappointment, attendance was low. Aplin said she felt Satan was at work trying to stop the drama from moving forward. “For the entire week we had rain, snow, sub-zero temperatures, and on Good Friday, no one showed, but we felt the need so much that we performed the drama anyway. … But afterwards so many people said they had heard about it and wanted to come but couldn’t,” she said. “We just decided we were going to continue this mission outreach of sharing God’s love and grace. We made up our minds: We weren’t going to let satan win!”

After the first year, the program started gaining church support and with that came attendance and more volunteers. The volunteers brought family and friends, and the production has exploded since then, she said. After posting a Facebook page for “Passion in the Park” this year, Aplin said she had more than 1,000 visitors to the site in 15 hours. “It’s just spreading like wildfire,” she said.

Christians who are well-grounded in the Biblical teachings serve as guides to usher visitors from one scene to another. There is some walking from scene to scene, but there is limited seating available at each site for those who have physical limitations with walking. The interactive show is complete in 45 minutes and ends with light refreshments and a brief fellowship time.

Actors and actresses for “Passion in the Park” come from different parts of the state. Les Rivera from Clay County portrays Jesus Christ.

When he first was asked to be a part of the drama, he said he figured he would be an apostle or a disciple, certainly he wasn’t expecting to play Jesus. But he said he is honored to play the part. Rivera is physically roughed up in the drama — some of it very real.

“I tell them [the floggers] to not hold back. … There’s a part of me that dreads it — there is fear — but I just ask for strength and courage to go through with what has to be done,” he said.

Rivera said he tells the floggers not to hold back because, “We want people to realize we are serious about this. We don’t want it to be a joke. We’re not Hollywood, we’re not actors, and we don’t want people to think that the real story isn’t real.”

Rivera has seen the impact. He spoke of a time several years ago during one production when two young men were mocking the show as they went from scene to scene, but after the beating scene, it wasn’t a joke to them any longer. One young man told Rivera after the production, “When I saw you taking those beatings, something snapped in me — I realized it was real.”

Rivera said the young man gave his life to Christ that evening.

“I’ve been forgiven of a lot,” Rivera said, “so I do this.” The most powerful moment in the drama for him, he said, is when they raise him up on the cross. “I’m looking out at the crowd and praying for those in the audience. It’s a position of humility and honor at the same time,” he said. Rivera is a former youth pastor and a current leader of a faith-based drugs and alcohol recovery program called Celebrate Recovery.

His real life mother, Betty Rivera, appropriately plays the part of Mary, the mother of Jesus. “I don’t have to fake the tears,” she said.

Betty said she thinks about how she would feel if her son really were being crucified. “For [Mary], there was no acting. It was real.

“What Mary must have gone through with her son — how could any mother endure any of this? It becomes very traumatic, and I fall into the part very easily because it is my own son up there,” she said.

Betty, her husband, William Sr., and son, Matthew Rivera, drive nearly four hours from Hammond and spend a weekend in the Wabash Valley to help with the drama. Matthew plays Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. “It’s not a weekend vacation or a restful time,” Betty said.

They come to perform because the story is important to them, and it’s important that they help get the word out, she said.

As Judas, “I feel a little bit like the bad guy, but since it’s my brother playing Jesus, it makes it a little bit easier,” Matthew joked. But the performance is serious business to him, also. He said he just tries to imagine what it was really like back then, and it becomes more real to the actors as well as the audience through the drama.

“It’s horrible when he’s put on the cross,” he said. “A murderer gets set free, but they crucify Jesus. He doesn’t have a hideous crime he gets sentenced for.”

Matthew was drawn into the performance by his brother. “He told us to come down for this to see what they do. We just wanted to be a part of it,” Matthew said of himself and his parents. “I look at all these people and wonder how many are coming out and getting to know what really happened. It’s like watching a movie. It makes people understand a little better than just reading about it.”

Budd Aplin plays the part of Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea.

During Jesus’ time, it was customary for the procurators to go to Jerusalem during the great feast to see that order was maintained, Budd explained of the story told in the Gospels of the Bible.

Pilate was abiding in Herod’s palace when Jesus was brought to him, charged with blasphemy. Pilate would not accept this charge, so the people changed it to a political charge that Jesus was, among other things, claiming royalty and not paying tribute to Rome. Pilate had Jesus flogged to satisfy those wanting him crucified. Pilate then returned him to the people, aware that Jesus was innocent. He then offered them the choice to release a murderer, Barrabas, or Jesus, supposing they would crucify the murderer.

However, the crowd cried, “Give us Jesus.” Pilot washed his hands before the crowd and claimed he was innocent of Jesus’ blood. He tells the people that Jesus’ blood will be upon them and their descendants. Then Pilot released Jesus to the people to be crucified, Budd said.

Budd said the drama changes not only Christian lives, but it sometimes changes peoples’ lives who haven’t known Christ as savior. “I get to see the peoples’ faces when they realize that they are responsible for what Jesus is going through. We all are … what it does, it makes the people realize what they’ve been reading and hearing. It brings it home.”

Dustin Pruiett from Terre Haute plays one of the floggers. “I feel like a villain, but we are just bringing the message to life,” he said. “I remind myself that I am doing this strictly for Jesus and the Gospel message to show people what Jesus really went through. I’m playing a bad guy. I don’t like to do that, but I remind myself this is what really happened.”

“You just fall in love with Jesus when you are surrounded by and are a part of this emotional retelling of the life of Christ,” Lori Aplin said. “You can read about it, but when you are physically there, actively engaged, it’s real. It’s all of a sudden real.”

Sponsors include Cross Tabernacle Church, Union Christian Church, Kings Servants Chapter 916 of Christian Motorcycle Association, an anonymous donor and Covenant Cooperative Ministries. Aplin said they are always looking for more volunteers and sponsors. Anyone interested can email loriaplin@gmail.com or call 812-917-4970.

Performances are scheduled for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday (April 20), each night at 6, 7 and 8 p.m. The drama begins across from the playground in Fairbanks Park and ends at the amphitheater. The drama does show scenes that some viewers and children might find disturbing, Aplin said.

 

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