The Christian Broadcasting Network

The Man Called Jesus

By Erin Zimmerman
CBN News Producer -
VIRGINIA BEACH, VA — The resurrection of Christ will be at the center of Easter celebrations around the world this weekend, and here in Virginia Beach, one ministry is using drama to tell The Story of the Man Called Jesus.

Jesus is Risen!But to the play's creator, cast and crew, the story of Christ is more than just local entertainment, it’s a means of conveying the true message of Easter.

“Easter is one of the Christian holidays that has become a misnomer for a lot of people in our culture, even for Christians. The reason is that nobody wants to talk about the cross anymore,” said Marie Umidi, producer of The Play.

Carrying the message of the cross is the primary goal of Marie Umidi's ministry, an evangelistic drama called The Play: The Story of the Man Called Jesus.

”One Easter about 18 years ago now, the Holy Spirit prompted me to go on a three-day fast, because he was speaking to me about a presentation that would cut through the core of all of our Christian entertainment,” Umidi said. “And what resulted was The Play: The Story of the Man Called Jesus, which we now present in Virginia Beach each Easter weekend, and we have been now for the last 17 years.”

Those 17 years have taken the production from the city's churches to its public theaters. But Umidi believes the ministry's calling stretches beyond the city limits of Virginia Beach.

She points back in history to 1607, when America's first permanent settlers planted a wooden cross on the shores of Virginia Beach.

“They prayed that God would dedicate this land — this land, this very place — to the preaching of the gospel into all the world. For all of us who live in this city that we call Virginia Beach, in all of Hampton Roads, it's our birthright to spread the gospel into all the nations,” Umidi said.

That urgency to spread the gospel eventually led to the forming of TMCJ International Productions, a ministry that's taken The Play from Virginia Beach to countries around the globe.

Kelly Batton, the Nepal team leader for TMCJ, said, “You can see that it can be a cultural exchange, and we can slide into countries where you wouldn't be able to go and set up meetings and preach.”

One of the ministry's most memorable mission fields has been in the war-torn Middle East.

”We have a command to go and to bless and to pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” Umidi said. “And out of our time spent in Jerusalem, ironically, God put the Palestinian Christians on our heart.”

In 1997, The Play made its West Bank debut in Bethlehem's Manger Square. Two years later, an all-Palestinian cast performed in the West Bank City of Ramallah, now the seat of deadly Israeli-Arab clashes.

“We staged the production and the people came,” Umidi said. “And people came forward afterwards, and they were weeping, and they were asking us to pray for them, and they said, ‘Pray for the city of Ramallah. Pray for us.’”

”And we prayed for them, and they said, ‘Will you come back?’ And the next time we were scheduled to go back, we couldn't get in. I don't know when we'll go back, but we will go back,” Umidi said.

Since the mid-1990s, annual performances have continued in the Russian cities of Murmansk and St. Petersburg. In December of 2000, a TMCJ team ventured east into Siberia. And the team's choreographer Joan Wilson believes it was no accident that they ended up in the city of Irkutsk.

“It was the place where Christians and Jews were sent and exiled and imprisoned because they were termed enemies of the state, which simply means that they believed in God,” Wilson said.

The Siberian cast was composed of 80 young believers from four local churches. They played to standing-room-only crowds in Irkutsk.

"I liked everything they did and all the performance,” said one Russian boy. “Thanks a lot.”

"I will be happy if you would come to our city more often. We'll be waiting for you," said one girl after the show.

“And that group of believers is now performing the play every Easter, just like we do here,” Umidi said. “In fact, at the last performance they told me 50 percent of the audience came forward to accept Jesus.”

To meet the needs of people in smaller, developing nations, the TMCJ team downsized their production for easier travel and training. The new version, known as The Story, requires only five to ten cast members, who play multiple roles using more than 40 hand-painted masks.

In December 2000, the story debuted in the Hindu kingdom of Nepal, where converting to Christianity can mean up to seven years in prison.

“You can't go into Nepal and just preach the gospel. We’ve met people whose families have tried to poison them other people have tried to kill them just for becoming Christians,” Batton said.

After only a week of training, a team of Nepali Christians performed The Story twice in the capital city of Kathmandu. Nearly 1,000 people crowded into a theater designed to seat only 676 people.

“I'm so happy to be a part of this drama. In Nepal, there is a lot of people that don't know our Jesus. After this drama, we can tell them easily about Jesus,” said Chandra Gurung, a dancer in the cast in Nepal.

Umidi said, “Since we left Nepal, two performances have taken place; in fact, at the last one, our coordinator invited the city officials, and it's incredible — they came. They actually came to a public gospel presentation. It's unheard of.”

Plans are underway to open TMCJ's first international office in the city of Kathmandu. Multiple drama teams are already being trained to reach the entire Himalayan region. Umidi believes that TMCJ's global ministry is just part of an answer to the prayer of the men who first landed in Virginia Beach back in 1607.

Umidi said, “Just like they raised that cross in the sands and planted it there firmly, every year, we raise the cross, so that not only Virginia Beach, Virginia, but all the world will see that the cross is the power of salvation unto those who are perishing.”

The Story of the Man Called Jesus is now available in seven languages. In the coming year, TMCJ International plans to take The Play to Latin America, Tibet, Bhutan, Burma and Thailand.

To find out more about The Play's performance schedule in Virginia Beach this Easter, click here to visit TMCJ International Productions on the web.

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