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Holiday concert marks 20 years of performing
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Gainesville First United Methodist Church is hosting its annual Christmas is One Language concert.

Christmas is One Language
What: A multicultural Christmas concert with performances by Voices of Hope, Lee Arrendale State Prison; Women of the Heart; Brazilian vocalist Anajulia Canavan Lima; Angelic Voices of St. John Baptist Church; Mariachi de Pepe Lopez; Vietnamese vocalist Hai Tran; Ballet Mexicano de Lupita Sosa; Cantemos al Senor (Good Shepherd Church); Lakeshore Carillon Ringers; and Grapevine Children and Youth Korean Choir. Reception music by Believers Sentimental Jazz Band.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4
Where: Gainesville First United Methodist Church, 2780 Thompson Bridge Road, Gainesville
Cost: Free
More info: gfumc.com/advent or 770-536-2341

With the first note rung each year by the Gainesville First United Methodist Church handbell choir during the Christmas is One Language concert, Enrique Montiel breathes a sigh of relief.

Montiel is chairman of the Gainesville Diversity Committee, which organizes the annual concert. He’s always anxious about the concert going smoothly until it starts.

This year marks the concert’s 20th anniversary — and possibly its  last.

“What we’re ending this year is not the tradition of the Christmas concert,” Montiel said. “We’re ending Christmas is One Language as it has been for 20 years. From now on, we’ll probably go with a different format, different venue. But that’s not set in stone.”

The Christmas tradition at First UMC features music and dancing from various cultures, and has grown into a large production. That accounts for the need to change.

“As rewarding as it is and as happy as the community is to have it, it’s become cumbersome to stage, especially for the church,” Montiel said. “It’s a heavy load. If it wasn’t for the church, we couldn’t do this.”

But the concert will go out the way it came in.

“What we try to do with this, like with every activity we do, is try to highlight the diversity of the community through local talent,” Montiel said. “It’s always a rainbow of cultures no matter how you take it.”

This year’s event will feature 11 performances, from Mexican dancers to

gospel choirs.

“We try to bring enough diversity to every concert, so people take home a piece of the world that they didn’t know before,” Montiel said. “I think we have succeeded in doing that by the reaction of people.”

Sam Marley agreed.

“Overall, if you look back at the big picture of the 20 years, we accomplished that to a nice degree,” said Marley, who was involved with the concert for 16 years as First UMC’s music director.

Christmas is One Language started in 1997 after the Gainesville Diversity Committee sponsored a summer concert featuring a Cuban singer and a local gospel choir.

“That combination, to say the least, was explosive,” Montiel said.

Afterward, the committee envisioned a similar concert for Christmas. Montiel approached the church with the idea.

Marley said he worked with the committee, lending advice and helping with the running order.

Several months later, the first Christmas is One Language concert was born. Other area churches participated, and still do.

“I don’t think this program could have been what it is was without the participation of the St. John Baptist gospel choir,” Marley said.

Montiel said watching the audience’s reaction is rewarding. Last year’s event featured a Chinese lion, a large head with two people dancing as the body, and “to see the kids reacting to it and the faces of people in the audience, that’s amazing,” he said.

The concert has also been an educational experience for some community members, including Jim Taflinger, who moved from Atlanta to Gainesville in 2001.

“Especially in the times that we’re in, cultural diversity is more important than ever,” said Taflinger, who has been attending for 15 years. “I never miss it. It’s really quite the experience. It’s just an incredible diversity of seasonal talent, and there’s always something new.”

Over the years, organizers looked to bring fresh performers to showcase with the regulars.

“It’s a challenge each year to find new diversity and new talents,” Montiel said.

As the community has grown, so has the pool of artists, he said.

“Although the format is the same — a Christmas concert with one performer after another — the performers are different. The concert is different every year,” he said.

But the feeling of love in the room is palpable.

“Terry Walton (former First UMC pastor) would tell people to look around the room and say ‘this is what heaven’s going to look like,’” Taflinger said. “It’s going to be all races, all colors, different religions, not necessarily just Christians. I think that sums it up pretty good.”

Christmas is One Language is set for 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at the church at 2780 Thompson Bridge Road. A reception with food from various cultures will follow. Admission is free.

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