50 UCPC years for Turners, with annual Nativity scene

  • This life-sized Nativity scene set up on the front lawn of UCPC is maintaining a decades-long church tradition. - Michelle Hollenhead

  • The Rev. Leonard Turner, with his wife, Mary Jo Turner, celebrated his 50th anniversary as senior pastor at Union Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 400 Everett Road, in November, and was presented with a proclamation from the denomination for the milestone. - Michelle Hollenhead

At its centerpiece, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, a fact Union Cumberland Presbyterian Church has long been keeping in the forefront, both inside and outside the church itself.

A life-sized nativity scene, complete with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three Wise Men, a shepherd, sheep and a donkey, currently sits outside the sanctuary at 400 Everett Road.

“It really speaks to people,” said Mary Jo Turner,

wife of longtime church pastor, the Rev. Leonard Turner. “I’ve seen folks sit there at all hours of the night, just looking at it.”

This is not the first year for the nativity, but is a continuation of the focus Turner brought to the congregation during the first year of the couple’s now 50-year ministry there.

“We came near the end of the year in 1972, and that next year, our first full Christmas, Leonard wanted to have a live nativity,” Mary Jo recalled. “We were in the old church on Union Road then, in a little park where Camden Grove (subdivision) is now.

“We didn’t have many that first year, so later on we moved it to Lloyd and Margaret Bacon’s farm off Kingston Pikewhere Willow Creek is now,” she added. “We had a portable sign to let people know, but some people didn’t like it, and we moved it to Village Green shopping center.”

She recalled many cold nights putting on the live nativity.

“One year we nearly froze to death,” she said.

Then she and her husband were traveling in their native Alabama in the early 1980s, when they happened upon what they believed was a live nativity — but was instead the inspiration for what they have now.

“Three or four of our ladies drove down to see what they had, and maybe how to make it,” Mary Jo said. “In the beginning we just had heads, and made the bodies out of something else. Then later on, a store, I think maybe a JCPenney, was going out of business, and we were able to get some mannequins, which is what we use today.”

The figures have evolved somewhat, as the church grew and completely moved to the property, where it is now located, in 1990.

“One of our church members, Jimmy Green, works on the faces to make sure they are lifelike,” Mary Jo added. “Our men put the figures out and our ladies work on the clothing.”

The nativity will remain up “about a week or two after Christmas,” she said.

Rev. Turner

The couple was honored in late November for their 50 years of service to Union Cumberland, a rare feat in any denomination.

But Rev. Turner, who recently has been battling a virus and earlier this year suffered a stroke, said it was confirmed by Cumberland Presbyterian officials he holds the record for years of service at one church.

“They gave me a proclamation in November during my jubilee celebration,” he said by phone late last week, noting in addition to church members, denomination officials and his family, others attending the event included two state representatives and former 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan.

“We have the greatest church in the world, and I am thankful to be their pastor,” Rev. Turner said. “I love everybody in our congregation.”

He said he is “especially blessed” that he and Mary Jo’s two daughters, Gina Turner Wood and Tabitha Roberts, and their families all worship together at Union Cumberland Presbyterian.

“I have a great life, and all my family goes to church with me,” he added. “We are really close and love each other and enjoy being together.”

Gina is midway through divinity school, as she is following her father into the ministry, and has been preaching in his stead here and there as he recuperates from his stroke and other ailments.

“I’m 79 and I still try to do what I can,” he said. “I don’t quite have my strength back, but I have a great life, and I give God all the credit.”