Andrew Rebmann came all the way from Las Vegas to teach him how.
It was just another gig for the muscular, ponytailed Rebmann, whose ZFX Flying Illusions Inc. supplied the wires, cables, harnesses and lessons to theaters when, say, Peter Pan was required to alight on a bedroom windowsill or flying monkeys needed to descend upon Dorothy. But increasingly, Rebmann was being hired for religious productions, which is how he ended up backstage in the Sheffield Family Life Center's sanctuary on 5700 Winner Road.
The Sheffield Family Life Center's $18 million home stretches out like an airline terminal, with a parking lot as big as a football field. The neighborhood's other nearby landmarks include an Inner City Oil Co. gas station and fenced-in lots for the husks of wrecked cars. Soggy teddy bears and a rose-covered cross mark one street corner as the site of random violence. Heavy, screeching coal cars ride the rails just behind Sheffield's bright lot. A relatively small cross above the main entrance is the building's sole hint of religious affiliation.
There aren't any crosses inside the main sanctuary, a cream-colored expanse with 3,000 cushy seats and two giant video screens. Touring the facilities, Rebmann saw all the familiar equipment behind the theater-scale stage: pulleys to open and close the curtains; a props table; and some large, thronelike set pieces. He knew his job was to make Jesus and some angels fly to the stage, but he didn't know much else. Didn't need to, really.
Then he rounded a corner and stopped short in front of two dozen black machine guns.
These people are nut cases, Rebmann thought.
If it's crazy to stage a Christmas play about the apocalyptic end times, complete with plastic-machine-gun-toting soldiers, the arrival of the Antichrist, the second coming of Jesus and fiery scenes of H-E-double-hockey sticks, then Sheffield pastors Felicito Bagunu and Roger Horne don't want to be sane.
Each year, Sheffield spends around $60,000 to produce six performances of Tribulation Christmas, the congregation's largest outreach event of the year. On average, church officials say, 1,400 souls come forward to devote their lives to Christ after watching it.
The unusual form of recruitment is fitting for such an odd congregation. Though Kansas City often feels like a grid of boundary lines where well-known streets separate black from white, rich from poor, Sheffield has managed to fill its green seats with an astonishingly diverse assortment of people. Church administrators estimate the Sunday crowds are 40 percent black and 40 percent white, with the remaining 20 percent made up of Hispanics and Asians; it's also a nearly even mix of suburbanites and those who live in the urban core. Nonmembers might recognize Sheffield's senior pastor, 73-year-old George Westlake II, he of the loud sweaters, whose Bible question-and-answer show airs on KPXE Channel 50 at 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays. It's taped in Sheffield's basement, where there's a fully equipped television studio.
Because Sheffield's is an Assembly of God congregation, at any time during one of the two Sunday sermons a forceful voice may rise out of the audience, speaking in English or an indecipherable language that Westlake calls "the movement of the Holy Spirit." Churchgoers consider themselves citizens of heaven who will disappear in the rapture, a prelude to the apocalypse as prophesied in Revelation -- a chapter of the New Testament embraced by some sects of Christianity and considered rogue text by others.
But while heaven waits, more earthly matters arise. For instance: Couldn't the flying Jesus be black?
The only thing black about this year's Jesus is his Harley jacket.
Jimmy Shrader was cast as Jesus because he looks the part, with his shoulder-length, caramel-colored hair and beard.
His one line: "Satan, come here."
"I'm really nervous, man. It's some big shoes to fill, you know?" Shrader says shyly, speaking with the laid-back tone of a professional stoner. Shrader doesn't get high anymore, though he still snaps to attention when, in a recent prayer circle, an arthritic woman asks God for help with her joints. "I still think like a heathen, man," Shrader says, shaking his head.
Like more than a few of Sheffield's congregants, Shrader used to be a bad man. In high school, he bashed a bully's face against a metal truck bumper until the kid's mother couldn't recognize him. He rode with biker gangs and once was arrested for attempted armed robbery when he pulled a knife on an undercover cop in the parking lot of a bar.
"It was whiskey, wine, weed, women and song," the 41-year-old Shrader says, a little wistfully. "Now I gotta be careful who I ride with. I don't want to mess my life up, and I don't want to go back.... I've been sober, been working out, eating good, taking my vitamins, and I've got a good prayer life. I'm making $18 an hour now."
Actually, it was a chain reaction of answered prayers that turned Shrader into a committed Sheffield member. He asked Jesus what he should do with himself, and Jesus told him to go back to school. Then a benefactor stepped up to pay for Shrader's books and tuition for personal-evangelism classes at Sheffield. Proof that Jesus was working in Shrader's life came when he prayed for a van to drive to his house-painting jobs.
"When I first sobered up, I didn't have the money to get a work van," Shrader recalls. "And the Lord knows I like old-school stuff anyway, so I prayed, 'Oh, by the way, Jesus, help me find a good deal on a van.'" Shortly after that, the owner of a house he was working on offered him one for free. "And I got this 1967 Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine van. It's so cherried out -- " He stops, then corrects himself. "Well, not cherried out. I mean, it's neat. You don't see those no more. So I prayed, and I got this van with a clean title, and my school paid for, within a month, from nothing but the joy in my heart, my faith, my trust in the word. I was about to have my utilities shut off, but I kept my faith until it turned around, and now everything is starting to flow."
After so many blessings, Shrader looks forward to portraying the man who made it all possible. At first he was reluctant; he didn't want to appear as though he were taking the part just to be popular among the congregation. He says such games were common at a church he used to attend in Liberty, where he felt left out. But no more.
Looking out toward Sheffield's stage, Shrader says, "It's a trip. I gotta put the little suit on and go, like, three stories up. I'm glad I'm not scared of heights, 'cause I'm a painter."
The plot of Tribulation Christmas would sound familiar to anyone familiar with the Left Behind titles by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, a publishing phenomenon that has sold more than 60 million copies of books in several different series, has spawned two movies and, surveys show, reflects the end-times views of more than 100 million Americans (or nearly half the country).
A Cliffs Notes version might go something like this: The prophesy says that in the rapture, millions of true Christians will instantly disappear off the face of the earth, scooped up by Jesus. Everyone else, including Christians who didn't make the cut, will face seven years of persecution and "tribulation," forced to endure earthquakes, famine and plagues. During this time, they will witness the rise of a charismatic leader, who will unite the nations of the world in peace, abolish divisive world religions, set up shop in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, and require his followers to take an identifying mark. It turns out that he is the Antichrist, his mark is the "mark of the beast," and he and his followers are hell-bound after Jesus' second coming.
Sheffield's drama revolves around the plight of a couple, Dave and Lisa, who are running from the Antichrist's soldiers near the end of the Tribulation. They hide out in the cave of another refugee, a survivalist type who doesn't believe in God. There, they reflect on their predicament, flashing back to a scene before the rapture in which Lisa's mom, her wheelchair-bound grandfather and their local pastor all begged Lisa and Dave to become believers before it was too late. Lisa sings a song: "I Wish We'd All Been Ready." Another flashback recalls how the Antichrist came to power, seducing the masses, ascending to the head of the United Nations and decreeing that everyone allow an electronic chip -- UPC code No. 666 -- to be implanted in their hands or foreheads and used to track individuals and their purchased goods. The Antichrist is assassinated at a press conference but comes back to life with Satan's help and declares himself God. Lisa and Dave are captured by soldiers, but Jesus intervenes and banishes Satan, the Antichrist and the cave-dwelling nonbeliever to the Lake of Fire.
The original Tribulation Christmas was written in 1974 by Mike Brown, an evangelist at a church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He and Sheffield's Horne were friends then. When Horne took over as Sheffield's youth pastor in 1980, he remembered Brown's old script. Horne reworked some parts, and his youth groups began performing it in the early '80s.
That was before the Left Behind books took off. "I read it, and I was, like, you know what? This is Tribulation Christmas," Horne says of the lucrative series.
Bagunu has upped the play's Hollywood quotient in recent years, adding video segments and special effects, such as pyrotechnics and flying. Bagunu learned about staging gigantic religious-themed shows when he spent five years on the West Coast and saw huge productions such as The Glory of Christmas at a megachurch called the Crystal Cathedral in Orange Grove, California. Since 2000, the rapture has taken place onstage at Sheffield, with ropes and harnesses zipping Grandpa out of his wheelchair and up to the heavens, and angels and Jesus flying over the audience to the stage.
Bagunu is particularly excited this year because he's arranged for students from several of Kansas City's public, inner-city high schools to attend a special daytime performance.
The issue of race comes up again and again in a congregation as diverse as Sheffield's, and this year's cast illustrates the congregation's apparent harmony: Vilma Serrano, a big, bubbly woman of Puerto Rican descent, plays Lisa's mom using an imitation of her own mother's heavy accent. Grandpa is played by John Bostwick, a white guy who claims a Sheffield prayer service cured his multiple sclerosis years ago. Dave is played by Prentice Maxwell, a 17-year-old African-American student at Paseo. Dave's wife, Lisa, is played by Bostwick's daughter, Nicole, who is 20 years old and white.
"We're muy blended," Serrano joked at the script's read-through, when the family members got their first look at each other three months ago.
"I can't talk right now. I'm at church. I'm getting a bullet hole put on my head," Craig A. Hampton says into his cell phone as he waits for his turn onstage at rehearsal. His deep baritone makes his voice audible from every corner of the massive sanctuary as he lounges in one of the folding church seats, cherry-flavored blood flowing from a volcanic wound above his right eye.
By day, Hampton is the chief steward of the local AFL-CIO chapter that represents federal Social Security Administration employees. Tonight, though, he is the Antichrist. Last year, he was Grandpa. The year before, he played the Pastor.
The year before that, he was a sinner slowly sinking back into the clutches of cocaine. Hampton sports sparkling pinky rings and loops of gold chains. He's divorced; his two daughters' names are tattooed over his heart. Getting through this hard exterior took nothing less than indoor fireworks.
A friend had suggested he visit the church, so Hampton took his daughters to the 11 a.m. service on Father's Day in 2002.
"The sermon was good, but I don't remember what it was about. The singing was good, but I don't remember what songs they sang," Hampton says. Then the church's dance troupe took the stage and, as they froze in place at the end of the routine, pyrotechnics shot from the stage.
"I was, like, this is for me. They're doing something that could burn down this multimillion-dollar building, and they don't care, because it's not about that," he says.
Hampton, who just turned 50, hasn't had an easy life. Humor is his defense mechanism, a necessary survival tool for a short, light-skinned black man growing up in Kansas City. His mother had him when she was 13 and later left him with his grandparents, who raised him.
Hampton took up drama in college because one of his theater friends had all the good drugs. His grandfather had been a jazz singer during the heyday of 18th and Vine, and Hampton went on to perform at theaters in the River Quay (now the River Market). With this background, he was immediately drawn to Sheffield's annual Christmas performance.
He feared that he would be cast as a villain. He needed just the opposite in his life. But how else could the director cast a bassoon-voiced, diamond-studded stranger?
Charlotte Laterra, Tribulation's grandmotherly director, saw something else in Hampton. She surprised him by casting him as the Pastor that first year.
Laterra is one of those who joined the church after seeing Tribulation Christmas, when her daughter got two tickets from a co-worker 24 years ago. During the opening scene, when soldiers swarm through the audience with guns, Laterra recalls, she turned to her daughter and whispered, "This is the strangest place. As soon as there's an intermission, we're out of here." It's no coincidence that the play has no intermission.
At this early rehearsal, Laterra approaches Hampton, who tells her he's excited about his role as the Antichrist -- but not too excited. It's not a part you want to get too into. Since he learned he'd be playing the villain, he's been wondering aloud whether there's some way to get the temperature in the sanctuary to drop 10 degrees at his entrance.
"Have you thought about your part?" Laterra asks. "What do you imagine yourself wearing? I'll give you a hint: It's not black."
Hampton is silent for a moment. "I was thinking -- kind of a sharkskin number?" Laterra nods knowingly. "Yeah, like an Armani, gray sharkskin," he says, warming up.
"And the shirt underneath?" Laterra asks. "I'll tell you, it's not red."
"Blue shirt and tie, both?"
She smiles and nods again. A girl sitting next to Hampton asks, "Why you get to dress like a pimp?"
"Well, the character is kind of like a pimp," Hampton answers. "It's the same principle."
This year, the Antichrist and Satan are both played by black men. In the past, Satan has been played by a black woman. Hampton says he's been asked why the evil characters can be played by African-Americans but the part of Jesus can't.
"I would like to see it," Hampton says. "I don't think it would be me, because historically, they like their Jesuses tall."
Six-time Trib veteran Glen Brown, who plays the Pastor in this year's show, says it comes down to church politics. To explain, he offers an anecdote: During the monologue in which he preaches at Dave and Lisa to accept Jesus before it's too late, the Pastor compares Jesus to other spiritual leaders, like Mohammed, Buddha and Confucius. "You go to the grave of Mohammed, and he's still there," the line reads. "You go to the grave of Buddha, and he's still there.... There's only one God who can save your sin-sick soul, and his name is Jesus Christ."
Years ago, Brown says, that monologue included Mormon founder Joseph Smith. "It was taken out because we're trying to reach everyone, and though there aren't a lot of Mormons in this direct area, there are a lot right over the hill [in Independence]," Brown says. "I couldn't understand why we were cutting the Mormons some slack, if we believe it's a cult, as we say. But we cut it. Sometimes people can get [Westlake's] ear, and some things change."
In a year like this one, when the bad guys are played by black actors, Brown prepares himself for the inevitable questions. "We sometimes have to explain that we give the parts out according to whoever's the best actor. But they sometimes don't like seeing a black Antichrist, even though the Antichrist won't be Anglo-Saxon, either. He will be a Jew," Brown says.
"In my house, you won't see any pictures of Jesus. You go to some black folks' houses, and they've got these pictures up and Jesus looks like he could be hanging out on 39th and Prospect with a Jheri curl, and all the disciples look like Crips," he adds. "Jesus isn't black any more than he is blond. It's none of that.... But people want to worship the Jesus that looks like them. G-Three understands."
G-Three does understand.
G-Three is George Westlake III, son of Senior Pastor George Westlake II. The Sheffield Family Life Center's board of 13 members recently decided that when the senior pastor retires -- or if he becomes ill or incapacitated or commits a "moral failure" -- Westlake will take the reins of his dad's megachurch and inherit its responsibilities. For now, he preaches a handful of sermons a month on some Sundays and Wednesdays.
The elder Westlake (who enjoys watching Tribulation Christmas but isn't in it) won't retire until he's good and ready and he's sure that the transition will go smoothly. He is an electric presence behind the lectern, quoting endless Bible passages from memory and drawing amens from the crowd. Westlake is the first to admit that he gets a few puzzled looks from the congregation when it's his turn. His style is more reserved and a little sarcastic.
In this year's Tribulation, Westlake plays the character formerly known as Bubba, the hell-bound atheist who argues about Jesus with the repentant Dave and Lisa while they hide in his cave. The name Bubba reminded Westlake of former President Bill Clinton, and he wanted to make the part stand out from all the redneck Bubbas before him, so he renamed his character with a number: 12-25 -- 25 for short.
Westlake plays his part like a cross between Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. He also has changed a bunch of lines. When Maxwell, as Dave, tells 25 he's missing out on the greatest gift of all, Westlake snaps back: "You can take your Jesus and wrap him up in a big package and give him to someone who cares. Because it's not me. Not 25. Not 25." He wiggles his fingers, gnashes his jaw and twitches his head. Maxwell can barely keep a straight face in their scenes.
It's not a stretch for a pastor to play a skeptic, Westlake says. He encourages periodic questioning of faith -- it can make a person more certain of the Bible as literal truth, he says. "It's either true or it's the dumbest thing in the world," he says.
Westlake fights the fortunate-son stereotype. "My goal was never to come back here and work for my dad," he says. He returned to Kansas City 3 years ago after 15 years away. During that time, he toured the country as the drummer in a band and hosted a TV show in Chicago. Even after getting a Bible-studies degree at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, he wasn't convinced he should enter the ministry, but he worked as a youth minister in Florida.
Filling his dad's shoes is going to be a lot of work. "He's a spiritual father to a lot of people," Westlake says. Already, people tell him he looks too punk to be a pastor; at 42, he wears his jeans baggy and his hair spiky.
Westlake's ministry will be different from his dad's. He's not as comfortable denouncing homosexuality from the pulpit, for instance. When he talks about having a "personal savior" and a "relationship with Christ," he tempers his words with qualifying phrases -- "as mystical as that sounds" or "as weird as that sounds." And he dislikes using the threat of hell to get people interested in heaven.
But scaring people into heaven is the whole point of Tribulation Christmas.
"If it were up to me right now, would I create it [Tribulation Christmas] if I were left on my own to do it? Probably not," Westlake says. Then he realizes the mess he's waded into by saying so. "I'm in it, so how can I say that? I don't know. If people turn to God simply out of fear, it's not going to last. Fears are something that you get over, like an emotion. The grip, or should I say the touch, it has to go deeper than that. I don't want to speak against what we're doing. I'm part of we're. It works, and I can't argue against that."
Westlake is confident, though, about casting a black Jesus. He imagines doing it, partly to invite controversy and to keep people thinking about diversity. "I think it could be great to make people stop and say, 'Whoa, it doesn't matter what he looks like.'"
"Has anyone seen Jesus?" calls a stagehand. "Yo, son of God."
Shrader, in Carhartt overalls over a white undershirt, is wearing his crotch-vise of a harness and taking flight pointers from Rebmann. "If everything's not in the right place [when the lines start lifting], it's too late," Rebmann tells him, motioning around Shrader's pelvis.
They send Shrader up to the balcony, where the harness around his waist attaches with rock-climbing clips to a flying line on each hip. Four technical assistants will hoist him into the air -- two will control his descent from the balcony, one will unfurl the lines that send him sliding down a metal scaffolding to the stage, and a fourth spins him so that he faces either the stage or the audience.
From the balcony, Shrader flashes a grin. He seems calm enough.
Since taking on the role of Jesus, though, Shrader has felt an unexpected side effect. Portraying this part puts him on the front line of a spiritual war that's always raging, he says. At first, he found it hard to pray. Demonic forces were sabotaging him, he says. "I couldn't concentrate on what I wanted to pray on. It was like something was there, confusing it. So I literally had to force myself to pray, and once I started praying, it broke. I was, like, man, what was that?"
Laterra, the director, says it's common for her actors to be "attacked" in the weeks before production -- financially, physically or spiritually -- by forces that don't want to see the play go on.
But Shrader is ready. It's too cold now for him to be tempted to ride his Harley, and that's a good thing for a while. "That bike scares me sometimes. It makes me borderline. I can feel Jesus riding with me sometimes, and sometimes I'll run into old friends on the road and they'll look at me like, 'Man, what did we ever do to you?' And it's hard to tell 'em no, but you gotta know where to draw the line."
Shrader rises off his feet, then about 3 feet in the air. "How does it feel?" a crew member asks. "OK," he replies weakly. He cups both hands around his mouth, hiding his words from the flight technicians, and mouths, "It hurts!"
He goes up in the air and floats slowly down, making his way toward the stage. Tentatively, he puts his arms in the air, not like Superman but palms extended in a blissed-out way. As his sneakers graze the stage floor, Shrader says, "I'm not supposed to cuss anymore, but -- " A waving lock of hair covers his whispered last word as he scrabbles for the ground.
"I'm going to be singing soprano," he says. "I've just gotta think positive."
From Grandpa's wheelchair, Bostwick is also harnessed and ready to practice flying.
"One of these days, we'll be able to do this without cables," he says.
Tribulation Christmas performances are December 17-19 at the Sheffield Family Life Center.