In this version of the old, old story, no one is ever sure exactly what will happen.

Not the pastor who's watched this Nativity pageant grow from a handful of participants in bathrobes to an undertaking so large that a storage unit had to be procured for all the glistening costumes.

Not the beaming volunteers or the misty-eyed families, caretakers and group home staffers packing the pews.

Maybe not even the performers themselves, whose every step toward the manger seemed fringed with joy Thursday night inside a church in Andover.

There's no rehearsal. Just two performances featuring two casts of 50 to 100 adults with developmental disabilities, buoyed by a time-tested faith that something magical will unfold.

It always does.

For 25 years, the Rev. Don Anderson and his wife, Mary, of Anoka, have joined a committed troupe of volunteers to put on the pageant, shepherding the show from church to church as it swelled in size. The garments have grown more regal, and more musicians lend their talents. Much of the prep work has been perfected as helpers whisk performers to the costume racks and lead them to the altar.

But each trip to Bethlehem has a way of feeling new. "It's because of the exuberance, the joy," said Anderson, pastor of the Twin Cities-based Christ for People with Developmental Disabilities.

Such gusto radiated Thursday night from the angel waving his tinsel star of Bethlehem, even if he stepped forward a bit too early. It meant the other angels, delighted by their time on stage, didn't scoot back on cue for the shepherds. One of the wise men insisted on taking his stately walk apart from the others, gift held high, before bowing his head and bending his knee at the manger. Sure enough, a few shepherds got turned around, jostling in song with their backs to the audience.

But from the hushed pews, parents like Teri Rehmann of Maple Grove said those spontaneous moments inspire as much emotion as the planned ones.

"It's the one time when nobody cares," said Rehmann, whose son Nick has cerebral palsy and has played a shepherd for years. "I've never seen anything like this before."

Wheelchairs, walkers in tow

In churches around the globe, December ushers in a host of Nativity productions re-enacting the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.

But in Thursday's retelling, the reverent parade of angels, shepherds and Magi moved toward the manger with the help of a few wheelchairs and some walkers.

One year, Joseph had an oxygen tank. Some wait for years for their names to be drawn for the coveted roles of Mary, Joseph or the special angel with the pageant's one and only speaking part.

Others, like Columbia Heights resident Nancy Langenberger, who has Down syndrome, are just as thrilled to be in the choir.

"She's always so proud," said Langenberger's sister, Sue Thompson. "It's always a gift to everybody who comes."

Cast members ages 15 to 80 say it's a Christmas tradition they wait for all year, longing for their moment in the spotlight.

"If it doesn't put a smile on your face, then you're at the wrong place," said Lisa Kimlinger of Fridley, whose daughter Ashley, who has Down syndrome, wheeled in a birthday cake for Jesus during the pageant finale.

The pageant is a marquee event in the ministry that the Andersons began in 1979, spurred by the realization that churches weren't doing enough to serve people with disabilities.

Christ For People With Developmental Disabilities is a congregation without a building that reaches more than 700 faithful — including families and caregivers — through services and home visits.

They use space in two churches for weekly evening gatherings. The Tuesday group meets in Plymouth, while the Thursday congregation gathers in Anoka.

Each congregation puts on its own Christmas pageant, with the Anoka group using a roomy church in Andover for its production. The second cast will perform at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Wayzata Evangelical Free Church.

"For our folks, they so often are on the receiving end of a blessing," Don Anderson said. "This is an opportunity each year for them to be a blessing."

On Thursday night, volunteers smoothed tunics and tugged wrinkles out of sleeves. They tied sashes and secured headpieces as the performers admired their new finery. Special costumes were fitted carefully around wheelchairs.

Each detail, Anderson said, serves the same purpose.

"We don't want it to look less than," he said. "We want to honor them."

'It's overwhelming'

An hour before showtime, the Anoka cast filtered into Meadow Creek Church in Andover, grasping hands with friends and hustling to the costume stations.

Already draped in his shepherd garb, Brian Murray was keeping a close lookout for his buddy, Nick Rehmann. Murray, 48, always asks to be a shepherd so he can help Rehmann, who uses a wheelchair.

Just after 6 p.m., Murray's eyes lit up: "Nick is here!"

Words fail Murray's dad, Jim, when he tries to describe what the pageant means to his son.

"It's just overwhelming," said Jim Murray, of Ramsey. "He loves it so much. He talks about it all the time."

Nearby in a quiet hallway, Joseph and Mary huddled around a makeshift manger to practice their parenting. Longtime volunteer Linda Sevlie bestowed gentle insights.

"We watch to keep the head up," Sevlie sagely advised, cradling the doll's neck. "Nice and slow."

Fred Alexander, who had so longed to be Joseph, was nervous, worried he may trip as he helped Mary up the aisle.

But Sevlie, who helped spearhead the pageant when it first began, urged him on.

"That's great," she smiled as Alexander, 47, practiced helping Mary, played by Amy Nelson, sit behind the manger.

The moment arrived for their special trip to Bethlehem. Alexander, his face serious, tucked his arm behind Nelson's back as they neared the stage, ringed by about 400 onlookers.

He guided her up the steps, eased her into a chair. Soon they sat surrounded by the rustle of angel wings.

Every so often, Alexander lifted the Baby Jesus from the cradle, keeping his hand behind the head, just like Sevlie said.

Then, a quiet surprise. Rocking the babe, Alexander paused, leaned forward and gave the newborn a kiss.

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751