The newshounds at WJER in ancient Jerusalem must have had a field day with this story: poor, itinerant couple denied lodging; mother, nine months pregnant (!), gives birth to child in a barn.

Mary and Joseph's desperate details often become gilded with heavenly hosts, making us forget the down-to-earth circumstances of the Nativity's human reality.

Not so with "La Natividad," a theatrical creation that sends a girl named Maria and her betrothed, José, on a 21st-century immigrant journey through one of Minneapolis' most diverse neighborhoods.

"La Natividad" is a co-production of St. Paul's Lutheran Church and In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. Created in 2006, "La Natividad" returns this December after three years off.

It is less a neat and tidy entertainment than a participatory pageant; more about wearing mukluks and snow pants than Guccis and gowns. Huge masked puppets walk shoulder-to-shoulder with the audience up a chilly street. Tiny children dressed as stars gently lead Maria, who rides on a donkey.

"Sometimes it really feels good to honor one of the roots of the season," said Sandy Spieler, HOBT's artistic director. "Our reason for doing it in the first place was its focus on the increasingly Spanish-speaking neighborhood and immigration issues."

For the first three years the show was performed, Lizette Gomez Vega played Maria, and her husband, Delfino Gomez, portrayed José. In 2006, they carried their 1-month-old son, Emiliano. Lizette reprises her role this year, although without her husband. Delfino was sent back to Mexico in a sweep of undocumented immigrants. While the Obama administration had ordered a review of deportations -- to focus on dangerous criminals -- Delfino Gomez was still asked to leave. A church council member at St. Paul's, he was allowed to "voluntarily deport" and given four months to get his affairs in order.

"It is too hard," said Vega, who now raises the couple's two children. "I hope, I pray every night that he can come back for this Christmas."

They regularly communicate by phone, and Delfino's extended family is in Mexico.

An urban pilgrimage

For "La Natividad," Heart of the Beast uses several locations near its theater at 1500 E. Lake St. At Las Mojarras Restaurant, a giant masked rendition of the Angel Gabriel bows low to tell Maria she will bear a son. At Plaza Verde, the audience is herded onto wooden benches to be processed, much like the census counting in the Biblical account, and much like immigration procedures now. In the theater's auditorium, star children shout "Wake Up!" to slumbering shepherds as a choir announces the good news.

The journey along three blocks of 15th Avenue honors the Mexican tradition of "La Posada." José visits a house as the choir sings, "My dear and pregnant spouse needs to rest; please open your house." He is denied.

King Herod blocks the street at one point, but friends and relatives arrive from the church and bring the pilgrims to the open doors.

"La Natividad" takes on the homemade charm of a church program as the large animal puppets from Heart of the Beast arrive in a liturgical procession into St. Paul's sanctuary to adore the holy family.

Luisa Cabello-Hansel, who shares the pastorate at St. Paul's with her husband, Patrick, said a pastor from another denomination told her, "This is the most spiritual experience I have this Christmas. That is a real joy, to touch people in this experience of faith."

Patrick Cabello-Hansel, who was directing food servers for the soup-and-bread meal that concludes the evening, said he agreed that this is a ritual experience, not a show. He smiled as he watched the chaotic fiesta in his church's fellowship hall.

"I think the original Christmas story was a little disorganized too," he said.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299