For part of her life, the only place Wilma Andrews could find Israel was on the pages of a book.
There were bright blue and pale yellow-colored maps in the back of her Bible. There were illustrations of the Holy Land, from the manger in Bethlehem to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Israel was at her fingertips whenever she snapped them, but only between the covers of encyclopedias, history and theology books.
Andrews could only imagine the feel of such sacred ground beneath her sandals. It was incredible how something so close to her heart could be so very far away.
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Then, 45 years ago this year, Wilma and her husband, Dr. Joe Andrews, made their first of many trips to Israel.
“I not only went there, I saw it and felt it,” she said. “I walked where Jesus walked and saw what he saw.”
She returned to Macon armed with a camera filled with photographs and a higher calling.
“I wanted to bring Israel here,” he said.
She did it with words. She wrote and published the script for what would become the “He Touched Me Passion Play” and an Easter tradition for more than a generation.
Her church, the United Community Church at 2411 Heath Road (www.uccmacon.com) will present performances at 6:30 p.m. (doors open at 5 p.m.) Easter Sunday and April 27.
The play, which runs about two hours and 20 minutes, is free and open to the public. It includes a cast of about 60 characters and seven backdrops, all designed and painted by Andrews.
“He Touched Me” details the life of Jesus Christ through his miracles, following his final week at the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial before Pilate, and both the crucifixion and resurrection.
For more than 30 years, the play was performed at Macon Evangelistic Church, where Joe Andrews was the pastor. Fittingly, he was cast in the role of Jesus.
When the curtain went up on “He Touched Me” for the first time in 1970, Wilma Andrews sat on the front pew and held a camera light that served as a spotlight.
It grew from those humble beginnings to an elaborate stage production (complete with a Hollywood-style cloud machine) that reached more than 100,000 people.
The play became one of the church’s best-known outreach programs. It was so synonymous with Macon Evangelistic it was listed along with the church’s name in the telephone book.
Each time the Andrews went back on one of their many visits to Israel, Wilma gathered more material and details to add to her script. (Joe sometimes led revivals there and, on one trip, the family was baptized in the Jordan River.)
It was the love of the Lord and the love of drama that brought Joe and Wilma together.
She wanted to be a teacher.
He wanted to be a preacher.
They met in a speech class at Asbury College in Lexington, Ky., and were later cast in lead roles in a play.
Wilma said she doesn’t remember the name of the play. “But I do remember the romantic parts,” she said, laughing.
Joe was from Macon, graduated from Lanier High School and finished his college education at Mercer University. Wilma was from Ashland, Ky., on the Ohio River in northeastern Kentucky.
They married and moved to Macon in 1951, where Andrews pastored Macon Evangelical for 42 of his 53 years in the ministry. He was the founder and former headmaster at Macon’s Chapel Hill Academy, which is now closed.
In 1993, the Andrews were involved in a serious accident when their truck hydroplaned and flipped five times on Interstate 75 in south Bibb County. Wilma had her back broken, and Joe was critically injured.
He was in the hospital for 159 days and received 53 pints of blood. His family claimed he “died” a dozen times and never fully recovered.
He founded and was pastor at United Evangelistic Church, which is now United Community Church.
But he died June 1, 2004, and never had a chance to preach in the church’s new sanctuary. His funeral was the first service in held in the new building.
Wilma has continued the tradition of the “passion play” with the help of her stage manager, Dennis Floyd, and others. She still paints all the backdrops, with new scenery each year. Several sets were added for this year’s production, including Pilate’s Judgment Hall.
“I hold the paint brush,” she said. “God paints the picture.”
The play is as important to her now as it was 45 years ago when she returned from her first life-changing journey to Israel.
It’s a “passion play” that is truly a passion.
“I was born to tell this story,” she said. “It’s a calling. It burns like a fire inside me. But it’s not my story. It’s the story of Jesus. We are just his hands and his heart.”
Reach Ed Grisamore at 478-744-4275 or email@example.com