‘Crazy big’ Christmas gift brightens Nebraska city, helps kids
Interstate traffic will be light this holiday season, if Americans heed COVID-19 advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to avoid travel.
But if there are truckers or other essential workers out on Interstate 80 between now and Christmas, something in the distance might catch their eye around Lincoln, Neb. – capital of the state that sits at the midpoint of that 2,900-mile route from San Francisco to Teaneck, N.J.
Four miles from the highway, the carillon tower of Lincoln’s First-Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ is “lit up crazy big – like those European cathedrals, or London at Christmas,” said the church’s senior minister, the Rev. Jim Keck.
The glowing, 171-foot tower is surrounded by an elaborate holiday gift from the congregation to its local community. It’s a performing-art installation, featuring a forest of Christmas trees, giant animal puppets roaming the church grounds, live music – and an invitation to support a local agency helping kids in crisis.
Outdoors because of COVID
The drive-by experience, “Love Looks Like This,” is brightening up downtown Lincoln from 6 to 9 p.m. every day, Dec. 18-24.
This is not what First-Plymouth had originally planned for Christmas.
“Life is adaptation,” Keck said. “We had intended to create an incredible walk-through experience into our sanctuary to see a live nativity and the entire building ablaze with theatrical lighting. But then the pandemic worsened, and we pivoted to a drive-by experience to ensure the health of our community.”
The church hired Omaha-based Theatrical Media Services to light its campus, including the tower. Theater designers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln built animal puppets, life-size and larger. University actors are playing characters from the biblical Christmas story: Magi, wisdom figures, Mary and Joseph.
Guests can tune their car radios to 89.7 FM to hear a recorded compilation of Christmas hymns performed by First-Plymouth musicians, interspersed with brief spoken messages by Keck. First-Plymouth carolers are also performing live and the carillon is ringing at various points over the seven evenings.
Inviting gifts to help kids
The event is free for people to enjoy, but the church is inviting voluntary donations to Cedars. The Lincoln nonprofit provides various crisis services to help children and youth “achieve safety, stability and enduring family relationships.” Giving by text or online is encouraged; the church can also receive checks made out to Cedars.
“The mission of Cedars is a wonderful match with our church’s mission to increase the love of God and neighbor,” Keck said. “Providing them with support from members of our congregation and the broader Lincoln community will help them achieve their goals of updating aging facilities in order to better care for children in peril.”
Cedars is getting 100 percent of the donations generated by “Love Looks Like This” because of the generosity of church members and leaders, Keck said.
The 3,800-member congregation usually budgets about $25,000 for Christmas Eve services, he said – and its Trustees had authorized 10 times that for this year’s special indoor celebration. The outdoor version is costing less, but still a significant $145,000.
“I was amazed that the Trustees wanted it to be a gift to the wider community and raise money for Cedars – and not seek donations to pay for it,” Keck said.
‘Message of light and hope’
First-Plymouth is well positioned to cover the event’s costs, Keck said, noting that offerings during the pandemic have “stayed as strong as normal” and operating costs have been lower, with its building closed most of the year. He said the church also benefited from three months of COVID-related federal paycheck protection relief.
So whether for highway travelers, children helped by donations or community members just enjoying the beauty, Keck said he hoped “Love Looks Like This” is a beacon of goodwill.
“Our intent is to offer inspiration during this unique Christmas season, and to bring the community together in celebration of the message of light and hope,” he said. “Especially during this season, love looks like all of us supporting the most vulnerable in our community.”
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