‘The Greatest Gift’ Comes To Life

This is a scene from the live nativity Sunday night. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/DEANNA PARKER

Holiday vision raises enough money to feed 55,000 people

Shelia Maness and her late father, Oscar Harris, drove through Handy McLamb Homestead in Benson last Christmas to look at angels and came away with a vision.

“I told him that this would be a really good place to do a live Nativity,” Maness recalled.

Never one to wait until the last minute, Dunn’s longest serving mayor and former state senator told his daughter she needed to start planning.

“He said if I wanted to, I needed to get real animals and I needed to get a sign up saying coming in 2020,” said Maness.

Harris died suddenly on Jan. 28, 2020, and the Nativity vision took a back seat as the family dealt with the devastating loss. Months went by, the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world and seasons eventually changed.

Buddy and Shelia Maness are seen here at the live nativity that raised more than $11,000 for a local food bank. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/DEANNA PARKER

Maness’ commitment to seeing the vision through, however, never wavered.

“It did not even cross my mind not to,” Maness said.

As the days grew shorter and the nights got colder, Maness started bringing the vision to life. With help from Glad Tidings, Gospel Tabernacle Church and close to 200 volunteers, the Nativity began coming to life. Despite the late start, Maness said the project seemed to be guided by a higher power.

“I really feel like the Lord had given a vision to me and my dad,” said Maness. “After Halloween, I got back to my mom that we really needed to do this. We got busy bringing everything together. We didn’t even get all the materials to put everything together until after Thanksgiving. We were able to pull it off and it’s just a Godsend everything came out so beautifully.

Emma Neal plays an angel in the recent live Nativity. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/DEANNA PARKER

“[My father] told me it would take a year to plan. We started pulling it together around Oct. 31, and we got it together. It just amazed me and I knew it just had to be the Lord working with us to be able to pull it off. There is no other explanation for it.”

Within a short amount of time, “The Greatest Gift” came to life. The Nativity scene debuted Dec. 4, featuring live people and a variety of different animals, including camels and donkeys. Organizers worked with the sheriff’s departments from Johnston and Harnett counties to create a traffic pattern for visitors and a light show kept families entertained as they waited in line. The fact so many people came together to make the event a reality wasn’t lost on Maness, or the memory of her father.

“I really believe the Lord just blessed our community with a wonderful and beautiful idea,” Maness said. “I just thank God that we went with it. It was really tiring. The volunteers were out there in the cold and there was a lot of people who gave a lot, just time and their effort. It was wonderful, especially to see people working together. My dad loved that about people. He always said working together is the best thing that works. It was a delight how happy it made people.”

Jimmy Pope, right, and his wife, Renee Pope, pose with a camel in the recent live Nativity. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/DEANNA PARKER

Maness decided at the last minute to really swing for the fences and see just how far the Nativity’s scene impact would reach. After contacting Dunn United Ministerial Association (DUMA), Maness chose to accept donations, not knowing how much could come from the approximately 1,200 cars that visited the site. The finally tally only added to the experience.

“The people of the community donated $11,030,” said Maness. “The most remarkable thing to me was when we were told that, that money would feed 55,000 people a meal from the food pantry. My dad would be so happy. I know he’s happy. It was a move of God.”

When all the cars left and the focus shifted to 2021, Maness reflected on her father, the year and what an emotional experience bringing their vision to life ended up being.

Dustin and Nancy Jo Bryant and baby, Caleb Bryant, play the roles of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus in the live Nativity. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/DEANNA PARKER

“What’s so amazing is that all of this was thought of before COVID,” Maness said. “I think his eyes would’ve been filled with tears and a big ol’ smile would be on his face. You could actually feel the presence of the Lord out there. It was so joyful for all of us to be able to see the smiles on people’s faces and the little kids being able to get out and look at everything. It was a blessing and the best Christmas present we could ever have.”

When asked if the vision would turn into an annual experience, Maness didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either.

“I’ve been asked that question several times and I’m not going to say no,” said Maness. “We really enjoyed it and we loved being a part of a blessing for our community. It was a lot of fun.”

Her father would’ve thought so too.

-Dunn Daily Record