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Nebraska church to celebrate return of Easter pageant

Sylvana Airan stands in front of the rotating stage at Southview Baptist Church that will be used for "This Day of Resurrection." Photo courtesy of Southview Baptist Church

LINCOLN, Neb. (BP) — Four years ago, the people of Southview Baptist Church were preparing for their full-dress rehearsal of “This Day of Resurrection.” The production telling the story of Jesus’ life had grown in popularity not only with the church, but the community.

That rehearsal was to be for the 29th production. Because of Covid, the church would have to wait four years before the 30th, scheduled for March 20.

The effort to put on a worldwide message in the heartland of America has been led by a Pakistani.

Sylvana Airan’s parents taught the Gospel as she grew up in Karachi. Her father gave her a View-master that had a Passion Play on it. As the principal of a school, her mother directed an outdoor Christmas play. A missionary couple gave her a comic book of the Bible.

As a child in a Christian family, though, Airan’s classmates told her she was “unclean.” The pressures led to a suicide attempt as a teen. But she went to a youth camp and embraced Christ as her Savior. Persecution continued, though, and led to her desire to leave the country.

“I applied to attend college in America,” she told BP. “That was December of 1978. I was 23 years old.”

She decided on the University of Nebraska because it was the cheapest and first to respond to her. The worst snowstorm she had ever seen welcomed her flight into Lincoln. Of course, it was also the first time she had ever seen snow.

The Pakistani government had required her to choose a major not offered in their own universities. She started with architecture, but then decided it wasn’t for her. So she moved on to theater.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with that degree,” she said. “But now I see that God’s hand was on it. I learned how to write a script, how to use makeup on actors. They taught me how to use whatever space was available to you.”

She joined Southview three months after her arrival. Her two sisters and parents followed her to Lincoln in the mid-80s.

In 1992 she wrote the script for “This Day of Resurrection.” As the narration and lines come directly from Scripture, there have been very few changes. To make the most of the church’s space, men of Southview constructed a rotating stage that can quickly move between settings in Jesus’ life. A trailer was even created about the production.

The pageant began that year and continued for each one thereafter until Covid led to it going online in 2020. Things still weren’t considered safe in 2021 to produce it. It couldn’t be hosted in ’22 and ’23 due to building renovations at the church.  

Nathan Wakefield arrived as interim pastor in March of 2022, with the interim title dropped that August.

“It’s big deal,” he said. “About 90 percent of our church plays some role in it, whether that’s as an actor or actress, greeting, helping with parking, stage design, mailings, being part of the dedicated prayer team – they’re all involved.”

Airan wants others to embrace the message of hope she received years ago in Pakistan. They will get the chance on March 20, as well as at following shows that weekend. A Saturday matinee has been added due to the growing list of those attending.

“Youth groups will be there. International students from the university are going to attend. On Saturday we’ll have a group of Kurdish children along with their parents,” she said.

“I’m very humbled that God has used me and this play and excited that God is using our church in such a mighty manner to share the Gospel,” said Airan, who spoke to groups on her testimony 15-20 times a year before Covid.

The return of the pageant signifies churches like Southview are still in the process of getting back to something that can’t be considered normal, just different than before Covid.

“We have a growing church with a lot of families, but this being the 30th production also means there are a lot of people doing this for the first time,” Wakefield said.

“It’s not just a new thing for me. We’re praying that people find a great deal of joy and excitement with this.”