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Saddleback Church volunteers resurrect mega-sized nativity scene

Mary, the wise men, the sheep, and the shepherds were not in good shape either. Some people even doubted whether they could be restored to their full glory.

However, when Saddleback Rancho Capistrano church volunteers began restoring the pieces of the mega-sized Nativity scene that’s been missing from the hillside above the property for the last three years, a resurrecting power seemed to take over.

On Tuesday evening, after 12 straight days of cleaning, scraping, sanding, painting … and some carpentry work, the celebration began. Saddleback Church’s Pastor Rick Warren flipped a special switch during a special ceremony, illuminating Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, and the rest of the supporting figures that depicted the Savior’s birth more than 2,000 years ago. A nearly four-decade tradition on the hill in San Juan Capistrano was restored.

The manger scene, easily visible from the San Diego Freeway, had been absent in recent years because of damage from Santa Ana winds and neglect. The 30 pieces used to configure 11 main pieces were discovered a few months back during Saddleback Church’s restoration of the Rancho Capistrano property. Saddleback obtained the property previously owned by Crystal Cathedral earlier this year.

Volunteer coordinator Tamara Carnine said that she sent just one e-mail to her Saddleback Rancho Capistrano list to get the ball rolling for the Nativity set restoration project. “For the next 12 days I had the right number of people, the right type of people, and at the right time. I never had too many or too little,” she said. “We had carpenters showing up, amazingly, every day to keep working on pieces that needed to be fixed. While they were working on those pieces, we were taking old paint off and getting the old pieces ready so we could start painting them. We worked about eight hours straight every day for 12 days.”

Carnine said that when people heard of the project, many of them started sharing stories with her about how much the Nativity scene had meant to them over the years and how much they missed it when it was not there.

“At the time I started, I just wanted to help see it get done,” she said. “I didn’t think too much about it, but as we slowly started to work on it, when the first coat of paint went on one of the sheep I got caught off guard, it was emotional. I just fell apart just to see the transformation. Nativity scenes will now always mean a lot more to me than they ever have, and they always meant a lot to me anyway.”

Pastor James Valencia, assigned to the new satellite Saddleback Church campus and retreat center that is set to open Christmas Eve, said he was happy with the turnout of more than 100 people at the lighting ceremony.

“We’re excited that we are able to bring back a longtime Orange County tradition,” Valencia said. “The fact that when we found (the Nativity set), it was in tatters. It was a mess. It needed a lot of love and care. It’s kind of a symbol of what we are going to do with this property. We are just going to infuse it with a lot of love and care.”

Laguna Hills resident Shirl Benda was at the ceremony with her husband, who was one of the volunteers. She said that it is important to remember the reason for this season of celebration.
“This shows exactly what Christmas is all about, and when it was gone, it was sad because we really missed it,” Benda said. “We need to have these markers in our area to remind us of what God has done for us.”

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