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10/7/97 The Witness gets new home to communicate the gospel

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (BP)–Although attracting more than 150,000 people over the years for inspiration and entertainment, “The Witness” wasn’t supposed to have a 1997 season.
Staged by 200 volunteers from 44 churches in the Hot Springs, Ark., area., The Witness was left without a home last winter when the amphitheater it has used the past 12 years underwent an ownership change.
But the story of the life of Christ, told from the perspective of the Apostle Peter and a cast of 100, is now showing at a new amphitheater at Panther Valley Ranch, a guest ranch east of Hot Springs, in what many have referred to as its “miracle season.”
The miracle began when Panther Valley owners Roger and Jerri Stanage, who heard about the struggle to find a new location, offered the production a home. Stanage, who also is a mechanical engineer, offered to supervise a small army of volunteers who went to work to carve an outdoor theater out of a hillside on the ranch.
The volunteers, many of them Baptist, required just over two months to turn the wooded hill into a 1,400-seat amphitheater. The first performance was Aug. 25 and the season will run through October.
Marketing director Pat Reed said the move to the new location “definitely was from God. It was about three months before the production when we drove out here and looked around at the quiet place and the Christian people here. We knew this was our home.
“It’s amazing how many came in and volunteered,” said public relations director Jim Young, “Churches from all over came in to help in some form or fashion. Whether it was construction, tearing down stuff, putting up stuff or painting, they wanted to help.”
Like the work crew members who helped build the new facilities, the cast and production crew “are here because they are handpicked by God,” music director Judy McEarl noted. “You can see that. There are seven ladies who sing Virgin Mary’s part. There are five different guys singing Judas. I see them back there praying for each other. They come with a heart for the ministry.”
Marc Bremer, a member of Hot Springs’ Second Baptist Church, is one of three actors and soloists who play the starring role of Peter. He’s been active in the role for nine years.
“I grew up here in Hot Springs,” he said, “and when we first moved back here I went to see this. I was moved by the power of the drama, the realism of it and the impact of the whole story in one setting. I had been to the Passion Play before and it’s wonderful, but it’s a different feel. That captures the spectacular history of it, but this is much more personal, more emotionally touching.”
While the role of Peter is high-profile, he said, he and other cast members aren’t out for notoriety. “None of the cast get the glory. There’s no printed program. Most people don’t know who we are and won’t know. This is under the Lord and that’s going to be a reward in heaven because I’m not being lifted up here.”
The “toughest part” of the role, according to Bremer, “is twofold. It is the combination of the physical challenge of an hour-an-a-half of aerobic stuff at 90 degrees, doing the music and the narration all at once, but the spiritual aspect, too.
“We are giving the pure gospel — every bit of the narration is paraphrased Scripture. We are speaking the Word of God — there’s a spiritual warfare that goes on,” he said. “The struggles of many of the members have been great over the years … yet God has been victorious.”
Devotion such as Bremer’s leads to “longevity among cast members and crew,” said Reed, who has been involved since the production’s inception. “They do it for so long because not only is it fun, but it is a ministry.”
Like many other cast members, Travis Gates, one of five actors who play James and a member of Hot Springs’ First Baptist Church, said The Witness “has absolutely and positively changed my life.”
“First, I met my wife, Sherille, here,” he explained. “Second, it sounds kinda weird, but I found another part of the Baptist faith and heritage here that I had never experienced. I had gone to Sunday school and Training Union and had honed in on knowing the Word, but had never experienced the feelings and emotions that came along with Christianity.”
Gates said although the character of James “is more of a comic role, it does have its serious side to it. I sing a song that talks about how Christ is a servant — ‘Please, Lord Make Me Just Like You.’ That’s a very simple but very powerful statement and it’s one that once I sing it, it comes home not only to the audience but to me as well. It has touched me many times singing it or hearing it.”
There is nothing comic, however, about the role played by Gates’ father, Tom — a Roman centurion who delivers a realistic beating to the actor who portrays Jesus.
Is it mentally or spiritually tough playing the heavy in that setting? “Oh no. No, no, no,” Tom Gates emphasized. “I’m plowing the garden and planting the seed — even if it takes playing the bad guy.
“That’s how I look at it,” he commented. “You have to have somebody that’s got to be the bad guy to plant the seed. Peter comes back and waters it and nourishes it along.”
He admitted whipping the actor portraying Jesus “was tough at first. I had to take that and put it behind me for the last six years. When you have the audience crying when you are coming by them, you know you are doing what God wants you to do.”
Stage director Tanni Braughton said like the Gates family, “We’ve had up to four generations involved in The Witness. One of the things that attracts people to volunteer is that there is something for everybody to do. It’s a good experience for the whole family. You don’t always see ministry opportunities for the whole family.”
While it is good to look at the impact on the lives of the performers, said McEarl, it is more important to look at the impact The Witness makes on the secular community. “On opening night, there was a group that came out who were Oriental. They had an interpreter and one of the older ladies tracked down one of our cast members after the performance and prayed with them and gave her life to the Lord right here on the stage.
“We’re not wanting to do anything not done properly, but if the Holy Spirit moves, we go with that,” she said. “We do not have an altar call because we don’t believe that is what the Lord has called us to do. When the Word of the Lord is planted, the Holy Spirit is fully capable of using it after that.
“This is a ministry, but the Lord uses us in the tourist-attraction arena because that is another way he infiltrates society,” she said. “There’s a lot of people we’re not going to get into the churches. If we can get them out here where they can hear the anointed Word of God, we know people are affected by that.
“They come away from here saying, ‘I gave my life to the Lord tonight,’ ‘My relationship with the Lord has been strengthened’ or ‘I feel like I can go back to my husband,'” she recounted. “We’ve had many testimonies like that and that is what we are here to do.”

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  • Russell N. Dilday