The Haynie Grange was a beehive of activity on Sundays in March. Though Freedom Fellowship’s services ended hours ago, Gail Riddle is conducting a rehearsal for the Easter Sunrise Service sponsored by the Peace Arch Christian Ministerial Association.
The church, which nestled into the community just over 11 years ago, conducts their services there at the Grange hall three Sundays a month. Because they share the building with the Grange, one service each month is held on a Saturday night to accommodate the pancake breakfast.
Three activities alone are happening inside the building. Riddle really can’t be everywhere at once. Tech personnel are tweaking equipment, mixes and microphones. Costumers are making adjustments to the trove of handmade period-piece costumes.
Downstairs, narrators are running lines from the 19-page script. At a different location the vocalists are going through their songs. Riddle, who has been directing the Ministerial Sunrise service for the last seven years, has had to recruit assistant directors and stage directors to keep up with the titanic amount of work involved.
“The support staff we have behind us is very large,” Riddle explained, “not only from our churches but from the city of Blaine, the Port of Bellingham, the Blaine police department and Northstar Stone and Landscape Supply, who lends us pallets every year to create platforms.”
Her previous assistant director, daughter Jennifer Cummins, is expecting the birth of Riddle’s fourth grandchild this week. Stepping into that role is Amanda Warren of Blaine, who has been a vocalist on previous productions.
The service is a dramatic pageant in song and narrations of the Easter story told on four different stages. Originally presented at Semiahmoo Spit, the production moved to Marine Park in Blaine five years ago.
Starting at 7 a.m., the approximately 50 minute production has an introductory stage, a Calvary stage, a Tomb stage, and a reflective Village stage held in Marine Park’s amphitheater. The ministerial association has been conducting the sunrise service for more than 25 years.
Freedom Fellowship took on the mantle of responsibility for the service in 2004. Riddle’s extensive background in drama made it a natural decision. Her mother was a stage manager with the Orlando Opera Company. Riddle has been active in acting and directing ever since high school.
She served as drama director for two Orlando area churches, often working with many of the professional actors and dancers from Disney World and Universal Studios. Her husband, Pastor David Riddle, who has worked tech and special effects for Disney and Universal Studios, estimates his wife spends hundreds of hours on the project. Cyrus Dunn, who has served on the sunrise service’s technical staff and also as a backstage director in previous years, has seen how challenging presenting the Easter story can be. Dunn believes he spends 70-80 hours a month working on the service.
In mid-February, an open call to audition went out to churches throughout Blaine. Conducted at Northwood Christian Alliance, one of those who heeded the call was Janis Page, who attends Peace Arch Assembly of God in Blaine. Page, a mother of two teenage daughters has been a part of the production for six years.
For many, this service has become an annual ritual. Cindy Laferriere, mother of three and one of the more seasoned cast members, has been a part of the presentation since Freedom Fellowship began coordinating the event.
“Every year, I experience something new,” said Laferriere. New for her this year will be that all three of her children will be playing some role in the project. Daughter Deborah, 17, and son Samuel, soon to be 16, are part of the cast, while youngest son Jerimiah, 14, serves as best boy.
On the other hand, there is first timer Larry Van Dyk, 61, and the oldest member of the cast. He wasn’t sure what the most difficult part for him was. “I can’t honestly say whether it is the memorization of reciting in front of people,” he said. “I’m not a forefront kind of person.”
The cast has adopted the attitude of ‘no matter what,’ especially when it comes to negotiating the weather on Easter Sundays. In recent years, the weather has been cold and rainy in the morning.
Last year, the cast endured almost horizontal rain at the beginning of the presentation. In 2007, the cast was actually forced inside the Blaine Boating Center at the last minute, for safety reasons, because of a heavy downpour. Despite the inclement elements, the presentation has been consistently well attended, often numbering in the hundreds. Riddle says that the purpose is worth the effort.
“For some it’s become a family tradition,” says Riddle, “ for some it will be their first time. Out there in the park we are simply friends, neighbors and co-workers coming together for a common purpose.”
The service will begin at 7 a.m. on April 4 when the cast will once more present the production at Marine Park. Rain or shine, they will answer a 3 a.m. call and join the tech and security staff already there to make final preparations for the morning’s activities.
This year, staff and congregation members from Living Fountain Church will once again host the cast and crew for breakfast at the Blaine Senior Center after their work is completed. Still, as the holiday is just beginning for most, the Sunrise Service cast and crew will be decompressing.
“This is a labor of love for the community,” said Van Dyk. “We received an invitation, accepted it and then committed to do the best we possibly can in passing the invitation on to others. The rest is up to God ... and the listener.”