At a small Presbyterian church in Richland, Washington, one pastor has been trying to spread a little solace with an unusual exhibit.
But 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 says.
Back then, Allen was the pastor at a Presbyterian church a poor neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was frustrated because he saw so much want and need around him.
“And to see that 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 says pastors aren’t supposed to get down during one of the churches’ happiest holidays. But he was. So his wife intervened.
“She gave me an assignment to put up the nativity that year,” he recalls.
The crèche, the scene of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus and little figurines of wise men 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.”
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 he shows me the display of all of them at his current church in Richland.
Some who visit the huge collection find it hard to express what they’re taking in.
“I’m a little hesitant to tell you about this one man that came through,” says Allen. “He came through the door and most people say wow and whoa and things like that.”
But this man — this visitor to the church — he exclaimed an expletive.
“But it was heart felt,” Allen says. “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.”
Mostly 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,” he says. “Which is Shalom.”
Shalom — as in peace. That’s something anyone can understand. Allen’s crèches are from all over the world and are made of all kinds of materials.
“I’m seeing glass figures,” says Allen. “I’m seeing ceramic figures, clay figures, wood, coke cans, banana leaves …”
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 safe keeping 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.” She married just a few weeks ago.