How a Nativity re-kindled a mother’s hope

During the season of Christmas and Advent, a variety of nativity scenes are being displayed in home, churches, and communities around the world.   At First Baptist Church of Pensacola, there is a small nativity scene in the window of the Paul Royal Recreation and Outreach Center that has a story to tell—a story of hope and a story of perseverance.

 In 1972, Frances and Elliott Dobelstein purchased and displayed a rather large lighted outdoor nativity scene on the front lawn of our church campus.  While many passersby enjoyed seeing the colorful manger scene atop Palafox Hill, the outdoor display became more difficult to maintain and to protect from vandals.

As the Dobelsteins grew older, they wanted to continue to sponsor the display but they could no longer perform the manual labor required to set up, take down, and store the display.  It was then that Frances made an appointment with me to share a vision and a memory that together make a story worth telling:

On December 28, 1971, the Dobelsteins’ son, Wayne, was critically injured in a snorkeling accident while on a field trip with the diving club from his school. Wayne, who was 16 years old at the time, did not survive the accident.  Devastated when they received the news, the Dobelstein family traveled to Marathon Key to bring their son home.  When the family arrived in Marathon Key, the harsh reality of the loss of their son became almost impossible to bear.  Frances, who had been a person of strong faith, says that she was at a breaking point.  That night she took a walk outside their hotel room desperately praying for the strength to get through this dark night.  Frances said, “I happened to pass a church, and on the front lawn I saw a nativity scene. It wasn’t fancy.  It was old and appeared to be made of plastic.”

Frances doesn’t remember all she thought about that night as she stared at the manger, but she does recollect thinking, “God not only had a son, but God knows what it feels like to lose a son.”  She said it was at that moment her resolve changed and a glimmer of hope emerged. “On the darkest night of my life, I had a quiet peace that God was with me in this tragedy and would help me to make it through.”

When the Dobelsteins returned to Pensacola, they asked Dr. Jim Pleitz, who served as their pastor at that time, if they could place a lighted nativity scene on the campus of First Baptist Church as a testimony of hope in the midst of the night.

Years later, in 2008 the Dobelsteins purchased a new small, table-top nativity that is now displayed in the window of the ROC, a scene reminiscent of the one Frances saw on that dark night in 1971.  This year marks 40 years that the Dobelsteins have sponsored a nativity scene on our church campus.

When some folks gaze at the manger, they think about “good news of great joy which shall be to all people.”  But for others, like Frances Dobelstein, the sight of the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes brings hope that twinkles as bright as a Christmas star shining over Bethlehem on a dark desert night.


Barry Howard

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Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola.

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