CLARK — Wanted: Small, gentle, brown cow. Must be comfortable with petting, calm in crowds and undisturbed by music and flashing lights.
Sharon Marohl posted that ad on craigslist.org in October. Marohl owns goats, hens, horses, rabbits and turkeys on her farm near Clark, and she borrowed a llama and donkey from family friends — but she still needed a cow to complete the live Nativity she puts together each Christmas.
Marohl was looking for a “small, gentle cow” for the manger scene. At SouthHouse Farms, a family cattle breeding operation in northeast Missouri, she found the perfect one. Her name is Mercury.
She's a miniature Jersey, standing 35 inches tall with a reddish-brown coat and big chocolate eyes. Owner Meg Sorhus likens her to a puppy: small, friendly and affectionate.
"Mercury is everyone’s favorite because she’s tiny, sweet and gentle," Sorhus said. "Her mother, Mars, is a really sweet cow, too."
Sorhus brought the cow to the farm in Clark earlier this month, and Mercury is spending three weeks with the donkey, sheep, goats and other animals surrounding the hay-filled manger.
Visitors can see the Living Nativity from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on the Marohl farm in Clark.
At the Marohl farm off Highway Y, horse stalls inside the barn are lined with Christmas lights and garlands.
Marohl has decorated her barn for years as a way to celebrate the holiday with the students who take horseback riding lessons from her.
Two years ago, she added the live Nativity. She estimated about 350 people came last year, and she expects even bigger numbers this year.
"By many standards that doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but we live in the middle of nowhere, and I didn’t know how to advertise," she said. "It was unbelievable the response of people that kept coming. I’m still in awe of the number of people that just wanted to get away from the rat race."
Visitors can pet the animals, enjoy Christmas cookies and hot chocolate and interact with biblical characters representing Mary and Joseph and the shepherds.
Volunteers dress as "shepherds-at-large" and park cars, assist with the animals, take pictures, replenish refreshments and answer questions about the Christmas story,
For Marohl, the living Nativity serves as an opportunity to share her family's faith with the community. She said she was surprised that both Christians and non-Christians offered to volunteer at last year's event.
"I saw people here that in no way, shape or form would ever grace the door of a church as long as I’ve known them," she said.
"But the Lord works in a lot of different ways in a lot of different people, and every day is an opportunity depending on how you use it."
Marohl said that above all, she wants people to walk away from the barn understanding the true meaning of Christmas.
"It’s not a fat man in a red suit and getting everything on your list," she said. "It’s about a little baby who grew up to be the Savior of the world."
The food bank
The Nativity event is free, but Marohl puts out a box for donations for the Sturgeon Food Pantry and other projects of the Sturgeon Ministerial Alliance.
In August, the Sturgeon Food Pantry's fate was uncertain after a sponsor church dissolved. The ministerial alliance stepped in to help feed the 120 families that depend on it.
Once multiple churches could help through the alliance, the number of households the pantry serves more than doubled to 254 from 120. It now feeds more than 800 people a month.
Paul Young, vice president of the alliance and pastor at Sturgeon Baptist Church, said the community jumped all over the opportunity to continue the food pantry.
"Sometimes we have as much as 9,000 pounds of food, but it’s so neat because we don’t always have the same group of people helping out," he said. "It’s amazing to watch people work together and have the chance to build relationships with some of the people who return."
Marohl volunteers from 9 a.m. to noon on the first and third Saturdays each month. Because she once relied on a local pantry, she decided to do something more than simply hand out boxes to families.
It "just felt right," she said, to donate money to the alliance to fund the food pantry. The Nativity event collected $1,005 last year.
"I have walked in their shoes," she said. "It can be very humbling and humiliating. Even if people are kind to you, it’s just a very difficult place to be.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.