Up the hill two blocks from the main street of downtown is the Skookum Community Church—an ordinary-looking church building most of the year. In December, however, the church becomes a destination for visitors from all over Pilchuck County and beyond.
The reason that hundreds of people each year visit the little church on the hill is a unique vision that began with a preacher and a chainsaw.
William “Dub” Williams supported himself in college and seminary by working for the Park family, a gregarious clan headed by grandmother Halmoni Park. The mothers, aunts, and girls of the family spend hours each week combing the forest for mushrooms, ferns and barks, which they dry and sell to gourmet restaurants as far away as New York City. The men of the family work with chainsaws, salvaging fallen trees, rolling huge log rounds into the beds of battered yellow pickup trucks to be split into woodstove-sized pieces and stacked neatly for firewood.
Dub’s job was to carve bears with a chainsaw.
In 1990, one of the Park grandsons had seen a chainsaw-carving contest at the Pilchuck County Fair, and he convinced Halmoni that the carved bears would be a good sideline for the family businesses. Halmoni agreed, and soon the demand for carved wooden bears was so high that the Parks hired three additional carvers to create them…and for ten years, Dub Williams was one of the Park bear carvers.
“I made each bear unique”, Dub says now. “I made standing bears, sitting bears, waving bears, and bears with funny hats. I got so I could create just about anything with a piece of wood and a chainsaw, but it wasn’t what you’d call intellectually challenging. When I finally graduated and was called by the Community Church, I drained all the fluids out of my saws and swore I’d never carve with them again.”
And then, one day…
“It was during Vacation Bible School a few years ago—one of those hot sticky days when we just couldn’t stand to keep the kids inside the stuffy church building. One of the volunteer teachers took her group under the shade of the big maple tree in the front yard of the church. I remember that they were singing an activity song where you have to stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down really fast as you sing. It was the teacher who caught my eye. The way she held her hands out to invite everyone to join the song, the smile on her face, the light in her eyes, even the stars embroidered on her scarf: it gave me shivers, because she looked for a moment exactly like the Christmas angel in the little plastic nativity set we got for my daughter Emily when she was little.
“But here’s the thing: the plastic angel had long, flowing blonde plastic hair…and the teacher was bald.
“She was in the middle of chemotherapy, and she’d lost all her hair, even her eyelashes. She had that tired look that cancer patients get, you know? And yet, when I saw her there with the children, my ears heard “The Grand Old Duke of York”, but my heart heard “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
It got me thinking about angels, and about nativity scenes, and when I went home that night, I fueled up my chainsaws and I carved the nativity angel the way I saw that young woman: bald from the chemo, scarred from the surgery, but singing to the people around her, getting them to sing along with her, and reminding them to fear not.
“The angel carving got me thinking about what a nativity in my town would really be like. We don’t have any camels. An angel in Skookum wouldn’t find many shepherds, either…but there are plenty of loggers, and fishermen and dairy farmers who would come to see the newborn king. I also wondered why, in the traditional nativity scenes, the stable is full of men? Every new baby I’ve ever seen in Skookum is surrounded by women.
“So that’s what I decided to make: a nativity scene for Skookum.
“I started carving more figures, all bringing gifts, all coming to make sure the parents know how to change a diaper and burp the child properly. I carved a bunch of animals: some dogs, a few cats, a mule. No camels. I carved a few cows using VanDamagen’s dairy herd as models, and a couple of horses, just because it didn’t seem right to have a scene in a stable without them.
“The model for Joseph is my friend Howard Park. He lived in California for a long time, but when he and his partner Matthew adopted twin boys, they moved back to Skookum so that Halmoni and the family could help raise the kids. The boys are half-grown now, and starting to bug their dads about learning to run chainsaws like all the other family men. If ever there was a man willing to raise up a kid to his full potential, it’s Howard.
“There was no doubt in my mind who to use as the model for Mary,” the preacher says, pulling a worn photo from his wallet. “My Great-Aunt Rae took me in which I was just a baby, after my parents were killed in a car wreck. She was 45 when I landed at her doorstep, and never had a baby of her own. She loved me as if I was her own child, and when I was half-grown she took in some of the neighbor kids who were being neglected by their own folks. She probably raised 20 kids before she died, and most of them weren’t even related to her. That carving took the longest of any of them, because it needed to be exactly right, down to the blue headscarf that she always tied over her hair when she worked in the garden.
I couldn’t think up three men who I thought were wise enough to advise the new parents, so I carved the three wisest women I know. I figured that if Mary had given birth in my town, she wouldn’t want a bunch of star-crazed kings at her bedside; she’d want Lulu Rubidoux from the high school, and Miriam James from the Pilchuck Tribal Council, and my wife. They are the wise ones around here.
The manger in Skookum’s unique life-sized nativity set is deliberately left empty. Dub explains why:
“When I set up the chainsaw nativity set on the front lawn of the church, I asked for families to take turns bringing real babies to lie in the manger, and there were plenty of volunteers.
“What I didn’t count on was what the community did with the creche: they brought folding chairs, blankets, and picnic dinners, and they didn’t just put the baby in the cradle, they added themselves to the scene. And none of this “adore him in the manger” business, either: each infant is passed around for the hour or two that he or she is the designated “Baby Jesus”, until every single person has held the child, touched the hair, and admired the fingernails.
“At first I thought that they were wrecking the whole thing, but when I really looked at it, I realized that they had, instead, gotten it exactly right. Those shepherds didn’t come down out of the fields with their flocks and then hang around outside in the parking lot. They came into the stable, they talked to Mary and Joseph, they played “got your nose” with the baby.
That’s the whole point of the nativity, after all: that God joined us here on Earth, as one of us.
And in Skookum, becoming one of us means being surrounded by the good wishes of all of us.
The Skookum Community Church Participatory Nativity is open Fridays through Sundays in December from 5 to 10pm. Donations to the Skookum Food Bank are gratefully accepted.
If you are unable to attend the Participatory Nativity in Skookum this year, your local food bank would still appreciate a generous gift of food or funds.