Let It Shine
Celebrating Christmas at Antioch
At Christmastime, the smell, sounds, and sight of the sanctuary at Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills make a lasting impression.
Photos by Megan Haley
The Christmas season at the Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills means a focus on family and mission work. The holiday services draw attendees from other religious affiliations as well as places as far away as the Bronx, Connecticut, and Poughkeepsie.
Like the historic congregation itself, the celebrations are a blend of both tradition and innovation. “The Christmas story is the same story each year,” says Reverend Merle D. McJunkin, “but we blow a fresh spirit into it by telling it in new ways using music and stories and readings and plays.”
Known for an emphasis on arts and drama, members of the Antioch choir say they pull out all the stops when it comes to music.
Congregant Doug Morton says that while he looks forward to hearing all the classic Christmas songs, he waits for one standout. “This Little Light of Mine is the cherry on top.”
“We’re primarily an Afro-American congregation,” says director of music Earlena Thevenin, “but we are much more diverse than people think, and we have the best gospel choir anywhere in the area.”
Thevenin, whose father Earl Brown is the organist, as his mother was before him, has come to the church since the time she was born. “Only God could have us last over a hundred years in a community where so many of us are not local,” she says.
Choir member Mitch Horn says, “Our church is the right-sized church. Even when the sanctuary is empty, it doesn’t look like a cavernous space that needs people to give it purpose.”
During the services, congregants are warmly welcomed and encouraged to be comfortable. There might be an added “Amen” or enthusiastic clapping or swaying, and even the most boisterous children are “lovingly appreciated.”
At Christmastime, the smell, sounds, and sight of the Antioch sanctuary can make a lasting impression on congregants and visitors. Candles flicker in the stained-glass window just above the pastor’s pulpit. In vivid shades of blue and green, the window, brought from Antioch’s prior home when the congregation relocated in 1976, depicts John the Baptist baptizing Jesus.
From the sanctuary to the fellowship hall, there’s a feeling of pre-Christmas Eve excitement. It crackles in the air of what is a well-oiled machine. Then there’s the fragrance of pine garland. “The roping is just beautiful and thicker than a man’s hands can reach around,” says Reverend McJunkin, indicating where the church-made decoration is strung high above flashes of red poinsettias that pick up the same color leather upholstery on rows of pews.
Royal blue banners, created by the church quilting and sewing ministry, hang from rafters. “This liturgical color of the advent season was chosen to honor the king of kings,” says the pastor.
“At any time of the year, people feel a general love coming from our parishioners,” he continues, “but it is even more at Christmastime. Good tears flow, and people sometimes feel an expression of weight being released during a service.”
With no detail overlooked, there are even tissue boxes set in the sanctuary windowsills. These too are dressed for the season in white needlepoint box covers with red crosses decorating the sides.
Church member Terri McNair says she’s missed only one Christmas service throughout her 40 years with the church. “I like our tradition of holiday mission activities.” she says, “They remind us that Christmas isn’t only about receiving.”
One of her favorites is the birthday party the congregation throws for Jesus. She looks forward, as well, to the gift collection for local families in need and some of the mothers at the local prison.
The church members know how to share their celebration. Members of the choir go caroling in neighborhoods. Antioch offers a special holiday service at Waterview Nursing home. “I’ve become quite a wheelchair dancer,” Reverend McJunkin winks.
When asked for his favorite holiday moment, he doesn’t hesitate. “Last year the church introduced a new holiday tradition which is actually a very old one. During the candlelight service, instead of having me light the candle like we used to do, we’ll have a church youth enter with it.”
From this one candle, each person in the sanctuary lights their own. “The coolest thing is when all the candles are lit in the darkened room. For me it’s like seeing the light of Jesus Christ on each and every face.”