U.S. Volunteers Join With Israeli, Palestinian Musicians for Holy Land Christmas Concert Tour; Christmas Eve Performance in Bethlehem to be Largest Event in Manger Square Since 1999

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A Mississippi pastor has spearheaded an all-volunteer team of U.S., Israeli and Palestinian musicians for a four-city Holy Land Christmas Concert Tour that will culminate in the largest Christmas Eve concert in Bethlehem's Manger Square since 1999. "With the hope of a just peace looming on the horizon, it is time to 'prepare the way,'" said organizer Rev. Sam Morris, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Columbus, Miss., and adjunct professor at the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration (J.I.B.E.). "One of the world's greatest tenors, Stuart Neill, will sing those very words on Christmas Eve to a world watching and waiting for peace." The Christmas Eve concert -- the final leg of the "Prepare the Way Concert Tour 2007: Peace on Earth, Good Will to All," will be a highlight of the annual festivities celebrating the birth of Jesus that include processions by various local churches, and coordinated in part with the Peace Center in Bethlehem.

An all-volunteer group of professional, collegiate and church musicians and choir singers from seven states will embark Dec. 14 for the Holy Land, to join with Israeli and Palestinian musicians to perform a progressive, four-city Christmas choir tour that will culminate in the largest Christmas Eve concert in Bethlehem's Manger Square since 1999.

The more than 150-voice chorus traveling at their own expense from the United States will join with 20 singers based in Jerusalem and members of The Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO) of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. Along with world-class operatic performers, led by renowned conductors Dr. Robert McBain and Dr. Eric Thorson, the choir and orchestra will perform portions of Handel's Messiah to deliver a simple message of "Peace on earth, good will to all" to audiences in Nazareth; Amman, Jordan; Jerusalem; and Bethlehem.

"While the music is the traditional Christmas music of Handel and John Rutter, the presence of the singers, orchestra and soloists transcends the differences existing among peoples of the world, and unites us in friendship and hope in this deeply symbolic season," said organizer Rev. Sam Morris, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Columbus, Miss., and adjunct professor at the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration (J.I.B.E.). Morris conceived the idea and engaged with friends and colleagues to coordinate what officially has been dubbed the "Prepare the Way Concert Tour 2007: Peace on Earth, Good Will to All."

"With the hope of a just peace looming on the horizon, it is time to 'prepare the way,'" said Rev. Morris. "One of the world's greatest tenors, Stuart Neill, will sing those very words on Christmas Eve to a world watching and waiting for peace." The Christmas Eve concert will be a highlight of the annual festivities that include processions by various local churches, and coordinated in part with the Peace Center in Bethlehem.

Since 2000, following what has become known as the Second Intifada, visitors have been trickling back into Manger Square at Christmastime, but numbers are far below the tens of thousands who thronged Bethlehem at the height of peacemaking in the 1990s. "The presence of your group with us would in this special event underscore the song of the angels as they sang 'Glory to God in the highest and peace to all on earth,'" said Dr. Victor Batarseh, Mayor of Bethlehem.

"I pray for Christmas Eve this year. It has been a dream of mine for many years to try to remind people everywhere that the world can live in peace - a just peace. Bethlehem, for many in the world, is a place of renewing that hope. For a few moments, we all relive the age-old story of angels singing and shepherds coming," said Rev. Morris. "If just for a moment, a wrinkle in time, in the little town of Bethlehem, let the songs of the angels be heard that kindness and love can win over hatred and bitterness. I believe it. And when you look into the faces of these wonderful musicians, you will see it too."

Tour Dates and Description
Dec. 17, 7 p.m., Tewfic Zayad Educational Campus, Nazareth.
The Carson Newman A Cappella Chorus with Viola Dacus, mezzo-soprano soloist, conducted by Dr. Eric Thorson. (Youth from Nazareth who will play at the Christmas Eve concert in Bethlehem will be introduced here as well. The public is invited.)

Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m., The Al Hussein Cultural Center (Amman Municipality Auditorium), Amman, Jordan.

The Carson Newman A Cappella Chorus, the Knoxville Choral Society with Stuart Neill, tenor soloist, conducted by Dr. Eric Thorson. The concert is by invitation from Her Excellency Maha Al Khateeb, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, and patron of the Amman program. Persons interested in attending the concert may contact the Ministry of Tourism to request an invitation.

Dec. 22, 7:30 p.m. St. George Cathedral, Jerusalem.

Soloists: Stuart Neill, tenor; Sandra Lopez, soprano; Cheri Rose Katz, mezzo soprano; and, Horace English, bass. Accompaniment by Sean Pollock.

Dec. 24, 6 p.m. Manger Square, Bethlehem.

Bethlehem will take on a quiet and hope-filled atmosphere on Christmas Eve as the concert tour reaches its climactic performance in Manger Square, just outside the Basilica of the Nativity. The conductor of the concert, Dr. Robert McBain, chose the evening's selection: "It seemed so appropriate when choosing the music to think of one of the most famous Christian works of all time, Handel's Messiah, and of the words of the Prophet Isaiah: 'Comfort ye my people, saith your God, Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, That her warfare is accomplished, That her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare, ye the way of the Lord.'" At the close, as an act of friendship and a prayer for peace, the choir will sing Peter Lutkin's "The Lord Bless You and Keep You."

About the Volunteers
Chorus: A mixture of professional, collegiate and church choir members from St. Timothy, Mandeville, Louisiana; Carson Newman A Cappella Chorus, Jefferson City, Tennessee; Knoxville Choral Society, Knoxville, Tennessee; plus other university and regional choral societies from New York; Texas; Arkansas; Mississippi and Kansas; joined by members of the international community, including Israelis and Palestinians.

Soloists: Stuart Neill, tenor, who has performed with The Metropolitan Opera; Teatro alla Scala; New York Philharmonic; Israel Philharmonic; Los Angeles Philharmonic; and many others. Sandra Lopez, soprano; Cheri Rose Katz, mezzo-soprano; Horace English, bass; and Viola Dacus, mezzo-soprano. (Full bios available)

Orchestra: Members and teachers of The Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO) of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music and a quartet of professional string players.

Conductors: Dr. Robert McBain, minister of music and worship at St. Timothy on the Northshore United Methodist Church in Mandeville, Louisiana, whose experience includes recording with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the late Robert Shaw, and being a member of the Roger Wagner Chorale. While with the Chorale, he performed regularly with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta. Recent honors include an Aurora Award for his performance of the Verdi Requiem with the Mississippi Symphony, which aired on ABC television Sept. 11, 2002. In 2005, Dr. McBain conducted the Manhattan Philharmonic Orchestra in Verdi's Requiem to a sold-out house at famed Carnegie Hall. Dr. Eric Thorson, professor of music and director of choral activities at Carson-Newman College and artistic director/conductor of the Knoxville Choral Society (KCS). (Full bios available)

About The Rev. Dr. Samuel (Sam) O. Morris
Sam Morris is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Columbus, Mississippi. During his tenure at Columbus FUMC, the church has been a leader in mission offerings and outreach, building churches in Mexico, India and Africa.

While pastor of Galloway United Methodist Church (1995-2002) in Jackson, Mississippi, a church of rich historical tradition and the site of the uniting conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South and Methodist Episcopal Church North, the church made great strides toward reconciliation. Under his leadership, Galloway entered a new phase of growth in which the church rapidly became the youngest of the larger United Methodist Churches in Jackson - a significant move for one of the oldest churches in the state. At the same time that the church was becoming younger, the church became more diverse in reflecting the faces of the entire community. In the November-December 2000 issue of Interpreter Magazine, Galloway was lifted up as an example of a church that intentionally lives out Christ's call to reconcile all people to one another and to God.

Since 1993, Sam has taught courses for clergy and lay people in the Holy Land, first as an Adjunct Faculty Member with the Jerusalem Center of Biblical Studies, Jerusalem, Israel, and more recently for the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration. "My first trip to Israel and Palestine in 1983 was transforming. It helped me to see the scripture and my own life in relation to God more clearly. As a teacher, I have been pleased to share that journey with others. Over and over, I hear clergy and lay persons say that they are reading the Scripture as if for the first time."

Well known for his storytelling style in preaching, he has led more than 800 retreats, revivals, youth encounters, lay rallies and other events throughout the Southeast (USA). His doctoral work encompassed the areas of Christian ethics and Christian religious education using television as a vehicle for teaching. Much of his teaching today centers on the life of Jesus in the setting of the first century, helping modern people experience the Bible with a new, fresh approach.

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Christine Moore
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