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Messiah Project--Providing Nativity Scenes Around The Area For Nearly 30 Years

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(Photo: Messiah Project)
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For the one of the only times—in fact, possibly the only time—since everything shut down due to COVID-19 last March, we had two different guests in the studio with us for “Arts News” this week. One of our guests was Lindsey Robison, President of Messiah Project.                                                                           

Robison acknowledged that this has been a “silent fall” for his organization, a not-for-profit fine arts organization headquartered in Springfield, whose visual, dramatic, and musical productions celebrate the Jewish and Christian heritage at the core of American artistic culture. “Yeah, we had plans for concerts this fall and a holiday concert, and of course, that needed to be canceled. And right now,” he joked, “I can't sing or dance, you know, in public at least!”

But the group has found another way to keep busy this Christmas season: erecting--and maintaining--the many Nativity scenes around the area, in front of McDonald's Restaurants and other venues. “And Messiah Project has done this since 1992.” That’s right: the Nativity scenes that pop up all over the area have been the work of Messiah Project for nearly 30 years. “So many people—even people I know—say, ‘That’s really nice, who does that?’” It’s difficult for the organization to get the proper recognition, since “according to Springfield ordinance, you can’t have anything on the sign over two inches high. And so we do say, ‘A Messiah Project event’”… but that’s difficult to read as you drive past the painted scenes.

As of tomorrow, Robison says, there will be 33 such scenes up and available for viewing, not just in the immediate Springfield area but in towns like Mount Vernon, Bolivar, Strafford, Marshfield, Republic, Ozark, and Nixa. “It's really quite something that businesses would host this tradition, the Jewish-Christian heritage that Messiah Project tries to keep in front of the public,” he added. “And a lot of people also don’t realize that we're celebrating other cultures” in the some of the Nativity scenes, including Bulgarian, Japanese, African and Chinese cultures. Robison admits that the latter two represent past, not present culture in those areas. “So many people know that (the African continent and China in the modern era) are not notoriously Christian culture. And to have that out there, it's really quite interesting.”

Again, these Nativity scenes all consist of cut-out wooden characters and scenes, as opposed to using live actors. And Robison wanted people to know that these are “all hand painted by different artists in the area”—they are not simply pre-printed or manufactured cut-outs.

He also wants people to notice the tall grain elevator at the corner of Chestnut Expressway and National Avenue in Springfield. “On the side of that, we put a large international nativity, and there are cultures from all over the world that are represented on that. It gets kind of covered up with trees and brush now and then. But we're really excited. We did that in 1996, and it's kind of a fun story. When we decided to do that, we went out to the local community and had people submit their designs.” It took a fire truck supplied by a local distributor, and a lift supplied by Masters-Jackson, to get Robison and other painters high enough in the air to complete the project. Robison hopes to be able to refurbish it soon.

The Nativity scenes, including the paintings on the grain elevator, were created with the help of a local paint company who has donated, and continues to donate, all the paint Messiah Project uses for this project. Actually, said Robison, “a lot of people really helped make this all happen. And another thing I want to mention (is) that the Boys Ranch down in (Lampe, Missouri), ‘Lives Under Construction,’  they send up six or eight young men, and a supervisor, trucks and trailers. And they helped me put all these 33 scenes up.”

Populating the Nativity scenes, said Robison, are more than 400 hand-cutout and painted characters. “And they all have to have a steel stake in back of them to keep them up.” Robison is especially pleased that this year he’s been able to find locations for all the scenes including the ones representing international cultures. It takes a lot of people—and time—to put up the Nativity scenes and take them down at the end of the season. “It takes two weekends to take everything down; we’ll start taking (them) down January 1. And we go up right after Halloween (at) our primary location, McDonald’s Restaurants. That’s when they want it up, so when we go up with them, we go up with other locations as well.”

Robison remembered two other “international” Nativity scenes that Messiah Project has constructed. “When we were traveling in Poland we saw a Nativity. And so we just took it home. Of course, it was just small, hearth sized, and but we blew it up and made a large one. And then we also saw another one in Austria, which was a beautiful triptych. And we have two of those. One is at Nixa Hardware, and the other one is at McDonald's on Kingsley near Cox Hospital (in Springfield). So those are very unique, and they represent the Polish culture and the Austrian culture. And of course, they're all hand painted.”
Messiah Project is not-for-profit, and Lindsey Robison mentioned that if anyone wants to help the organization with this or other projects and events they sponsor, there’s a donations page at their website, www.messiahproject.org.

Many arts organizations have begun online streaming to make up for the lack of in-person performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Messiah Project is considering the possible use of technology for a different purpose, Robison said. “We have choirs—we have two choirs in Greece. We have a choir in Moldova, and we also have one choir in Krakow (Poland). And then we have two choirs in Mongolia, in Ulanbator. And so I'm really working on trying to find a director to use technology to rehearse these (choirs). And then when we go to the country, then we'll be able to just bring a concert very quickly. And that's one unique thing about Messiah Project. Not only do we provide a platform for local artists, but it's international cooperation to bring choirs” from around the world.” And whatever their native language, Robison said with a laugh, “they all pronounce ‘alleluia’ the same, either in Japan or Mongolia! So anyway, we're excited about that for the future. And we do have an April concert scheduled, but we'll see what happens. We'll see if the vaccine works and go down that road from there.”

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.