Paul Tedder, born in Georgia and raised in Alabama, likes to say he’s so Southern, “I’m kin to myself.”
But the pastor of Bethel Church in Tampa doesn’t embrace his roots so much that he’s a champion of everything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Far from it.
He’s traveled to 20 countries doing mission work, soaking in cultures from around the globe. And although it’s been said that 11 a.m. on Sundays is the most segregated time of the week, not so at Bethel. This Assemblies of God congregation of 400 is a melting pot of nationalities, representing more than 40 countries.
The church is also home to two sister churches that meet there: Bethel Vietnamese and Bethel Burmese.
“If there’s one thing we want to be known for here, it’s that we open the doors to everybody. And I mean everybody,” Tedder says. “Even the people not everyone wants. And when we open that door, we make them feel welcome and right at home.”
We all know that the Christmas and Easter seasons are busy, busy, busy for Christian churches. Not only are members dealing with the usual havoc of personal obligations, many take on the added responsibility of staging productions and launching fundraising activities to help the needy.
Yet, these sacred holidays are a time when the non-churchgoing public is more apt to visit a religious service. So why not give them added incentive to see the beauty in fellowship on a regular basis? Ultimately, the hope is to boost membership — and, more important, share the message of Christ.
I get a lot of requests from congregations to highlight their seasonal offering. This year, Bethel wins hands-down.
Forget the standard musical with baby Jesus in a manger and the Three Wise Men bearing gifts. On Dec. 14 and 15, Bethel will take a whole new approach with “Christmas Around the World.”
Now in its fourth year, the production takes spectators on a whirlwind global adventure of how other cultures celebrate the holiday through dance, drama and music, with many of the on-stage participants representing their respective countries. Afterward, there’s a tasting buffet of various international foods, followed by a Christmas gift for every child age 1 to 11.
And it’s all free. Though Bethel is of modest means — Tedder says, “We’re not white collar here, we’re mainly blue collar or no collar.” — staff and members find a way to pull this off. They’re given a $3,500 budget; from there, it’s all donations, sponsors and cooperation from area ministries.
“I’m a super thrifter,” says Allison Goss-Lara, who juggles duties at Bethel that include serving as worship arts pastor, doing office work and assisting her husband, Mark Goss-Lara, with his youth pastoral job. That’s how you do it at a small church. Everyone pitches in. And if you put on a production with limited resources, you get creative in finding support.
Take the free gifts for the children, for example. Goss-Lara says members “find a way” to donate the money or the presents, even those who struggle with their own finances. And these aren’t cheap dollar-store items. Each one costs about $10, she says.
“The feeling is that no kids should go without at Christmas,” she says.
Goss-Lara says coming to Bethel from her native Pueblo, Colo., was a “dream come true.” She and her husband immediately embraced the church’s diversity and its multicultural neighborhood west of Seminole Heights.
“Our pastor just doesn’t talk about embracing diversity. It’s part of what we are at Bethel,” she says.
Rehearsals started for “Christmas Around the World” in early October. This year, around 150 participants from Bethel and other local ministries will take a whirlwind tour of holiday traditions through dance and music from 10 countries. Besides America, they will feature the Caribbean Islands, South America, Antarctica, Africa, Vietnam, Burma, France, Jerusalem and Italy. (And don’t think the American portion will rely on the same-old, same-old; hip-hop dancers are on the agenda. How American is that?)
Though the songs and dialogue are in the native languages represented, an English translation will run on a giant screen.
“It’s a little bit like being in the United Nations for a few months,” says Goss-Lara, who will join her husband in presenting Italy’s contribution to the production. She’ll sing an Italian holiday song; he’ll give a live art presentation. “You can’t help but learn about other cultures when you get so personally involved in something this ambitious,” she says.
Tedder plays the world traveler who goes from country to country, relying on a little humor and the inspirational messages along the way.
Bethel is proof that it doesn’t take a big budget to do something rather extraordinary and definitely original. As far as Christmas gifts to the community, this is one of the best of the season.