SIBLEY, Iowa | When it comes to land mass, Osceola County is Iowa's smallest.

When it comes to unity on Good Friday, no county thinks bigger. 

The Osceola County Ministerial Association is staging the Good Friday Passion Play for the 30th straight year. The production, which involves 200 participants, will leave a healthy portion of 1,500 spectators in quiet thought as they depart the auditorium at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School, leaving behind an empty cross and a crown of thorns.

Performances are at 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. The first two shows are "sold out," to use -- or misuse -- a term. Rather than sell tickets, organizers take ticket requests and then ask for a freewill donation from spectators as they file out. As of Thursday afternoon, some seats remained for the 9 p.m. show. Call (712) 754-3715 for information.

So how did a small county develop something this big?

"It was started by a group of people from Sibley from various churches, that and community leaders," says Gretchen Bartelson, Passion Play director for 25 years. "We had been having joint Good Friday services, but those got down to something like 50 people in attendance. They tried this (a play) to see if they could improve the attendance."

It's done wonders for turnout. And for the community, bringing together performers who range in age from 18 months to 70-plus years old. There are 50 children who act and sing in it.

And that freewill offering amounts to around $4,000, money used by the Osceola County Ministerial Association to address a variety of issues throughout the year, ranging from long-term enhancements in the high school auditorium to short-term needs of motorists who find themselves stranded in the county.

You can't measure what the play does spiritually. Rather than paging through the Gospel at church, one sees the story of the Last Supper, hears Peter's denial and watches the crucifixion of Jesus spring to life on stage, scenes stamped with a powerful mix of vocal and instrumental music.

For the 10th and final time, the Rev. Terry Simm of First Presbyterian Church of Sibley assumes the lead of Jesus. Playing the role three times in one day takes a bit of a physical toll. That's one reason this year represents Simm's swan song.

"There's also a spiritual high you get out of it," says Simm, who indicates he'll remain a part of the cast in future years. "You know from what other people say, it's very meaningful to them."

Simm calls the closing song, "Hallelujah for the Cross," the most powerful point of the production. Four lead singers join in front of the stage, singing while pointing to Jesus, who has just died. The curtain closes as the rest of the cast gathers in song.

As the song reaches its climax, the curtain opens, revealing an empty cross, draped in a purple robe and bearing a crown of thorns.

"You're pointing at a cross and He's not there any more, implying He is risen," Simm says.

For three decades in Osceola County, it is how thousands of people have started this holy weekend, unified on Good Friday.

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