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'Like a brotherhood': Diverse group of friends, volunteers unite to pull together Cristo Rey's annual nativity

They each show up with their own skills, and their own story.

From around the world — countries such as Ecuador, Spain, Peru and Mexico.

For a week in December, a group of friends and volunteers at Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Lincoln are only concerned with one story — one of the most well-known of all — the birth of Jesus Christ in a lowly Bethlehem manger.

The group comes together to construct an intricate, 28-foot-long nativity scene inside the church at 4221 J St.

“It’s like a brotherhood,” said volunteer Jose Caicdeo, originally from Ecuador. “We show the love we have for each other, the friendship, when we’re here.”

The nativity encompasses the entire narrative of Christ’s birth, as told in the Gospel of Luke, and includes scenes from around Israel — the caves of Bethlehem, the streets of Nazareth, the walled city of Jerusalem.

Nearly 300 figurines populate houses, alleyways, temples, a marketplace and other scenes constructed on a 28-foot-by-12-foot stage. Special touches abound, such as a rock from the Sea of Galilee.

The nativity has been a Christmas tradition at the church since 2004. That’s the year Jose “Pepe” Herrero, a lawyer from Spain, approached the church about pulling something together. Herrero collects the Spanish figurines used in the nativity, and directs the setup each year.

But the project is far from a one-man job.

Volunteers from around Lincoln are needed each year for the project.

“You know Christmas is coming when Pepe comes calling,” said volunteer Martin Pella, of Lincoln. “It’s a good reminder to get ready.”

Pella started helping build the stage and set up the nativity about seven years ago, when he poked his head inside the church and saw the work going on.

“They said I had to come back at another time, unless I wanted to help,” said Pella. “And I did."

Jose Casarin, who moved to Lincoln from Mexico nine years ago, has helped since the beginning.

He manages the technical side of the nativity, programming the lighting — sunrise and sunset, the stars emerging — that mimics the passage of time. For viewers of the nativity, each day lasts four minutes.

There’s other technical magic as well. Smoke floating from chimneys, a rushing waterfall, a lake filled with fish that reflects the baby Jesus in its waters.

“People have a hard time picturing it all,” said Casarin. “But when they come in, it’s like they have pleasant surprise. The nativity tells you a story.”

Setting it up is a seven-day affair, with volunteers working from early in the morning to as late as 3 a.m.

Volunteers such as Caicdeo create the many balconies, window frames and columns out of wood, while others keep busy repainting the Styrofoam made to reflect various hills and mountains.

Herrero sees the work as an uplifting and unifying experience for not only the hundreds who come to visit every year, but for the workers as well.

“The world focuses on hatred because we don’t have something that unites us,” he said. “The moment we have something that does, we forget who we are. No matter what it is — making the world a better place, building a nativity scene, preparing for Christ’s birth.”

Large and detailed nativity scenes are a staple in Spanish-speaking countries. There, they're called beléns, which comes from the Spanish word for Bethlehem.

Spanish and other European nativities generally feature softer, pastel colors, Casarin said. Those in Mexico, on the other hand, feature ruddy colors, including purples and browns.

The nativity at Cristo Rey is more like the latter.

“Mexico brought their own flavor to it, so the nativity here is really a merging of two cultures,” Casarin said.

Cristo Rey’s nativity, which opened Wednesday, is one of the church’s biggest draws each year, according to parochial vicar Rev. Ryan Kaup.

“Honestly, it’s the reason why a lot of people know our church exists outside the Hispanic community … which has brought a lot of blessings by bringing a lot of different people together,” Kaup said.

Hundreds — both Catholics and non-Catholics — come each year to the free exhibit. Money collected from freewill donations goes to both Cristo Rey and an orphanage in Kenya where Herrero volunteers.

Volunteer Carlos Servan helps with whatever he can, whether spreading sand or adjusting the figurines.

“Pepe is very detailed-oriented in terms of perspective, so we’ll move stuff a half an inch to the left, to the right, raise it up,” said Servan, an architecture student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It can be very time-consuming, but its works out in the end.”

And when do they know it’s finally done?

“It’s never done,” said Pella, laughing.

Maybe it’s when they finally put the fish in the water, suggests Herrero. Or when they bless it on the following Sunday, said Kaup.

Or maybe it’s when people first walk into Cristo Rey and experience the Christmas story coming to life before their eyes.

“It’s absolutely wonderful, seeing all these families — the parents, the grandparents, the children,” said Herrero. “It’s like the shepherds coming to greet Jesus when he was born. It’s magical.”

editor's pick
Lincoln cop plays Santa for struggling family as stolen gift sits in evidence room

Erin Konecky expected Christmas would be difficult this year after her son's death in October. A Lincoln police officer's unexpected visit to her home Dec. 7 added more stress.

Officer Riley Ference told Konecky a package carrying a Christmas present for her 6-year-old son, Gram, had been swiped from their doorstep and was recovered by investigators.

"I didn't even realize it was missing until she showed up," Konecky said recently.

But Ference told her she wouldn't get the gift — a Spirograph drawing toy for her young artist — until January, and she'd need to coordinate with the prosecutor's office to have it turned over.

The next day, the Waverly High School teacher told her co-workers about the police visit to her home. Deputy Amanda May of the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office, who serves as the school's resource officer, was among those who listened.

"You don’t deserve that,” May told her. "You’ve been through enough in the last four months."

Konecky and her husband, Tim, had their second miscarriage to start the year. Erin became pregnant in March, but a 20-week ultrasound in July brought troubling news: Their baby had birth defects he would not survive. 

The family spent the last half of 2017 preparing for their son's birth and death, and on Oct. 12, Spencer Keith Konecky was born.

He lived 96 minutes.

Knowing all of this, May resolved to remedy the Konecky's Christmas present situation.

She called Ference and the Lancaster County Attorney's Office and explained the importance of getting this $20 item back to the family.

The prosecutor explained the stolen Spirograph was needed for the trials of two 19-year-old men who were accused of stealing dozens of packages, including the Koneckys', that were left outside Lincoln homes in mid-November and early December.

Prosecutors couldn't just take a picture of it because it was a felony theft case, May was told.

Meanwhile, Erin Konecky explained to her son that one of his presents had been taken, hinting that it was an art-related gift.

He understood he would have to wait until after Christmas to get it.

"Those guys must just really like art," Gram told his mother.

Over the weekend, May checked around for a Spirograph as she did shopping of her own but couldn't find one.

Meanwhile, Ference sent May an email telling her to reassure Konecky — she'd found one.

Ference delivered a wrapped present to the Konecky home in northeast Lincoln on Dec. 15.

Gram opened the present and immediately started drawing. The officer posed for a picture with Gram and let him sit in the back of her cruiser.

Ference told Konecky she had been moved by their story, but Konecky said Ference and May's efforts to replace a $20 toy touched her even more.

"It felt like a nice bookend to this year that has been pretty rough," the 35-year-old mother said.

Working in law enforcement puts officers into the worst times in people's lives, so it's important to seize opportunities — no matter how small — to make a positive impact, May said. Ference declined to do an interview.

Police have since released the Koneckys' gift along with several others, and Gram has decided he wants to donate the extra Spirograph so another child can play with it.

Konecky wants people to know about the efforts of both officers, she said.

What amazes her is how much they cared for her family at a time of year when everyone has their own shopping and planning to do.

Her family has received an outpouring of support over the course of this difficult year. This unexpected, unnecessary but deeply appreciated gesture underscores that, she said: "Because of this, we've known true love from our community."