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— No Name and For Sale are ready for their cameo.

It’s hard to know whether the two Gentry camels are fully prepped for two weeks of posing as biblical dromedaries (pretentious for camel) at the First Assembly of God’s Living Nativity, an event that draws about 10,000 visitors each year in White County’s largest city.

On a recent visit, the pair of one-humped wonders seemed mostly interested in hay and determining what the jacket sleeve of a wary visitor tasted like.

As for the surroundings? Eight dump trucks of sawdust that could easily pass for desert sand. Dozens of wood and carved Styrofoam buildings - including King Herod’s palace and a synagogue. About 200 church members decked out in costumes ranging from shepherds to Roman centurions.

If that doesn’t get the Christmas juices flowing, the long-necked, knobbykneed duo with a penchant for emitting odd, burpy grunts might do the trick.

They’re not cheap. The two camels cost $3,000 for two weeks’ rental from Josey’s Humps, the single biggest cash outlay that the church makes for its Nativity scene. Church membersprovided the donkeys, goats, sheep, cows, chickens, white doves and horses.

The camels are part of the draw for the Living Nativity, the largest of itskind in Arkansas and the culmination of a childhood dream of Mark Ferren, the church’s children’s pastor. The event was held this past weekend and is scheduled again for this weekend.

As a teenager, he took part in a small manger scene at the church and caught the bug.

“I’ve always loved Christmas. I had a good family; Christmas was always a big deal to us,” Ferren said. “We want people to realize - nothing against Santa Claus - that the meaning of Christmas is Jesus. The way the world is, we forget.”

Six years ago, he persuaded pastor Vernon Ables to think big. The result: an enormous drivethrough Nativity, free to the public. The event started Thursday and ran for four nights. It will also be open Thursday through Sundayfrom 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. More information can be found at the church’s Web site livenativity.com.

Ferren was leading For Sale by the halter in the church parking lot last week when a glimmer of the camel’s appeal struck home.

“Cars were swerving, kids were yelling out of school buses. I had to bring him back here,” said Ferren, standing next to the camel pen behind the church.

Camel appeal draws families with young children and persuades them to spend 10 minutes driving through the Nativity and up to two hours waiting to get through the front gate on weekend nights.

“Everywhere we go ... all over the town and surrounding community, it’s just really got the church to be known well,” said Ables, who added that more than half of the church’s 450 members participate each year. “But it’s really not about the church.”

Donations are accepted, but it doesn’t cover the $25,000 cost. Ferren’s wife cooks a meal for the Nativity re-enactors each night, and volunteers spend about a month constructing a remarkably realistic faux-Bethlehem circa 2,000 years ago. Still, “we never break even. It’s not about breaking even,” Ferren said.

Fred Wilmoth, owner of Josey’s Humps, named for the Clint Eastwood movie outlaw Josey Wales, said his camels are accustomed to cars and people, spending much of the year in his family’s drive through safari in Northwest Arkansas.

But every camel has a personality, he said, and No Name and For Sale are no different.

For Sale is a 2-year-old male, about 6 feet tall at the hump and weighing 700 pounds. He’ll likely grow a couple more feet. Next spring, Wilmoth plans to break him in for riding, which increases the camel’s value threefold.

For Sale was bottle-fed and loved on by Wilmoth’s young daughter, who led him around their yard by a halter when he was a baby.

“He’s just like a St. Bernard,” Wilmoth said.

For Sale got his name from hanging around Wilmoth’s house so much that he got to be a “nuisance,” he said.

No Name is a little bigger and heavier and didn’t make quite as deep an impression on Wilmoth, who owns 20 camels. Hence the name - or lack of one.

Wilmoth rents camels to churches, birthday parties, and special events all over the region. On Thursday, he talked about his camels en route to a church Nativity in Tulsa.

His camels have played the part in weddings, Arab-themed parties and some “silly” parties at theUniversity of Arkansas at Fayetteville, he said.

“People want you to do some really strange stuff. For Sale has been in elevators, walked up stairs. People say, ‘Can he walk up stairs?’ Yep. If you want to clean up the mess,” Wilmoth said.

Camels are a lot like horses, but gentler. They are easier to “break” than a horse, Wilmoth said.

Ferren said the camels have helped draw visitors to the Nativity from as far away as New Orleans; Memphis; and Springfield, Mo. Churches across the country have contacted First Assembly of God foradvice on how to start their own living Nativities, including congregations in Honolulu and Washington state, he said.

Despite seeing his dream realized, Ferren doesn’t don a costume. No King Herod or Joseph for him.

“I normally stay out in the parking lot. I don’t want to be out front. I would rather, if things are going smooth, come in here [to the Nativity] and grab a goat and go back out to the parking lot and talk to the kids,” he said. “I love to hear the kids laughing when they come out, ‘I’ve seen Jesus.’”

And a couple of camels.

News, Pages 2 on 12/08/2010

Print Headline: Gentry camels make nativity scene

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