LIVERMORE -- He put much of the past four years of his life on hold to be able to tell the big story.
Livermore contractor Doug Fernandez will finally get the opening night of his dreams Thursday, when his "Living Bethlehem" show opens in a downtown lot for a five-day run -- the newest Nativity show in the Bay Area and a powerful testament to one man's faith.
With a cast of 115 and dozens of live animals, including a camel brought in from Idaho, Fernandez plans to tell a sprawling story of Bethlehem on the night of the birth of Jesus Christ. Roman soldiers will roam the streets, artisans will make and bake their wares, the wise men will search for the star in the sky and visitors will walk through, taking it all in.
It's a 35,000-square-foot outdoor spectacular, a free show Fernandez hopes will knock the audience's sandals off.
"Society is losing touch with what Christmas is about," said Fernandez, 50, a parishioner at St. Michael Parish, the Catholic church across the street from the show.
Inspired by a similar epic -- now in its 15th year -- he saw five years ago at Santa Clara First Baptist Church, Fernandez has been a man on a mission since.
"I experienced how it was 2,000 years ago at Santa Clara's Bethlehem and when the back of the hairs on your neck stand up, you realize how important this is," he said.
Fernandez's first step was to build a 3-D mock-up of what he wanted to create. Then he began the job of getting buy-in from his church, the Diocese of Oakland and the city.
But there was much more to do, such as getting land donated to put up the show and more land for prop construction; obtaining donated material and collecting an additional $50,000-plus for other materials; signing up hundreds of volunteers to make every inch of the sets and props; sewing the costumes; and getting the lighting and sound devices in place. It would have stymied lesser men, say Fernandez's family and friends.
"When he first told me, I thought he was crazy. But I knew if anyone could do it, he could. He can move people and get them going and excited," said his wife, Colleen Fernandez.
Doug Fernandez has overcome four years of challenges. He had to obtain city permits and navigate church rules -- even those that prohibit livestock on church property. He found, lost and then found again land to house Bethlehem. All the while he juggled his architecture and contracting work.
For the past five to six months, his work has pretty much been on hold, he said, and his family has been living off savings so he can devote himself full time to the project.
That the show is finally opening is "truly miraculous, because there have been so many obstacles in bringing it forth," said the Rev. Bob Mendonca, pastor at St. Michael. "But in every instance there has been one constant -- Doug -- and everyone has been resolved."
On Thursday, Fernandez and the rest of St. Michael Parish and other nearby groups will give people of all denominations a chance to experience the meaning of Christmas with five nights of "Living Bethlehem." The performances run every 30 minutes beginning at 6:30 p.m., at Church and Third streets.
But first came rehearsals. Even with them, Fernandez was in control, ensuring the details were right.
Last week, at the first full dress rehearsal, more than a dozen Roman soldiers clanked through Bethlehem's courtyard and set up guard around the manger.
An onlooker approached Fernandez, pointed to one lance-carrying soldier and asked, "He knows sneakers won't work next week?"
"If he doesn't, he will," Fernandez said.
After four years of pushing, pulling, cajoling and sweet-talking, one might ask Fernandez if it was worth it for five days of shows. But he has no doubts.
"I am driven by one thing, to make a nonbeliever into a believer," Fernandez said.
"This is the simplicity and true meaning of what Christmas is."
The same drive can be found among those who put on the Santa Clara show, and the massive "Bethlehem A.D.," put on by Tapestry Church in Redwood City for the past 20 years.
The Redwood City show draws about 30,000 people during its three-day run, said creative director Paula Dresden. She has worked full time on the show with 650 volunteers each September to December for 17 years.
"People have lost the meaning of Christmas; they don't even know the Christmas story," she said. The show "reminds people there is a God and nobody is a free agent."
After four years of work on his project, Fernandez is ready for the payoff: watching others experience the thrill he felt when he saw the Santa Clara show for the first time.
"This is the climax," he said about finally bringing Bethlehem to Livermore. "This puts things in perspective. I love lights and decorating but that is no longer as important. This is the pinnacle and my mission is almost done."
What: "Living Bethlehem"
When: 6:30-9 p.m. Thursday through Monday, every 30 minutes
Where: Church and Third streets, Livermore
Cost: Free, donations accepted
Details: Facebook.com/LivingBethlehem; video at http://bit.ly/QXMs37
ALSO IN LIVERMORE:
What: 22nd annual Drive-Through Nativity with a live cast of actors and animals. Cars drive from scene to scene and the sound is broadcast through vehicles' radios.
When: 7-9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday
Where: Trinity Church, 557 Olivina Ave., Livermore
What: "Bethlehem A.D. 2012," 20th anniversary, 40,000-square-foot set with actors and live animals
When: 6-9:30 p.m. Dec. 21-23
Where: Tapestry Church, 1305 Middlefield Road, Redwood City