Justice-themed Nativity scenes make a splash

December 30, 2019
The life-size Nativity scene showing Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees in separate cages at Claremont United Methodist Church has information on why the church decided to erect the controversial Nativity scene this year in Claremont, California. (RNS/Alejandra Molina)

The Nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church in California is striking.

Mannequins of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are separated in individual cages topped with barbed wire. A baby Jesus is wrapped in what resembles a Mylar blanket, similar to the sheets migrants have been given in holding cells.

On a podium, a message reads: “What if this family sought refuge in our country today?”

Martha Morales, the church’s associate pastor, said the intention was not to be controversial or political. Instead, she said, the church is trying to be faithful to its calling to do God’s work.

“Our purpose is to say, ‘This is what we believe that God is calling us to do.’ You’ve got to call out evil and lift up justice,” she said.

People have either commended or lambasted the church for its display. It has garnered widespread attention from progressive Christians and conservative commentators like Tomi Lahren.

The church received a slew of negative emails, and for safety purposes a local police car was stationed outside the church as visitors took photos of the Nativity and reflected at the site.

In Canada, a similar Nativity in Toronto shows a baby Jesus wrapped in a solar blanket in a cage.

Erecting Nativity scenes to declare public statements on social issues is nothing new. They’ve been used to highlight the immigrant struggle, take a stand on LGBTQ issues, and show nonreligious figures like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.

The Vatican showcased its Nativity, which depicted the plight of immigrants and refugees with the statue of a man carrying his belongings as he approaches the manger. The pope’s environmental message was also underlined by the fact that the crèche is entirely plastic-free.

A church in Dedham, Massachusetts, set up a Nativity scene meant to remind viewers about the impact of climate change.

Inside the glass manger, plastic bottles and other trash float past Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as they are swept away in waves of blue. Beneath the water, the shepherds’ flock and the wise men’s camels are drowning.

“God so loved the world,” a sign above the manger says, drawing from John 3:16, and asks: “Will we?”

Father Stephen Josoma, the pastor at St. Susanna Parish, said the church’s Nativ­ity scene was designed to make a splash.

“We’re quite pleased that we’re drawing people’s attention to the principal issue of our generation,” Josoma said. “If they are churchgoers, they need to be hearing about all this in church, and if not then they need to ask their pastor to think about it.”

For Claremont United Methodist, it’s an annual tradition to display bold Nativity scenes. The Claremont Nativi­ty includes a statement that references the Trump administration’s family separation policy. It notes the more than 5,400 children estimated to have been separated at the border since July 2017.

“Imagine Joseph and Mary separated at the border and Jesus, no older than two, taken from his mother and placed behind the fences of a Border Patrol detention center,” it reads.

This is not the first time Claremont United Methodist has made headlines for its Nativity scene.

In 2013, the church displayed a Nativity that portrayed a slumped Trayvon Martin in a black hoodie with blood pouring down his chest. The scene was titled, “A Child Is Born, a Son Is Given.”

“There is no better time to reflect on gun violence than Advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus,” a message on the display read. “Jesus was born into a state of total vulnerability as an innocent, unarmed child during a time of great violence much like Trayvon Martin.”

Morales believes news of this new installation took off after theologians like Diana Butler Bass shared the Nativity photo that their new lead pastor, Karen Clark Ristine, posted Satur­day evening on Facebook. In that post, Ristine said she was moved to tears by the Nativity and shared its theological statement. The post has been shared more than 24,000 times.

Many people online have expressed anger and have been critical of the church’s Nativity.

“Whoever built this lie will burn in hell for blasphemy,” one Facebook commenter said.

“So wrong in every sense to politicalize the birth of Christ!” another wrote.

Morales said Christians need to stand up and speak against injustices. She said the church was also working on translating the Nativity message into Spanish, adding that many Spanish-speakers have stopped by the church to see the display.

“It means something to feel that everybody doesn’t hate you,” she said.

One woman, who did not want to be identified, was grateful for the display. She also appeared surprised that a Christian church would make such a strong statement supporting immigrants.

That struck RJ Lucchesi, 35, a student at the Claremont School of Theology. He lives in San Diego and is on campus once a week.

“My Christian faith has so often been in the hands of conservative policy,” Lucchesi said. The Nativity scene “feels a little bit like holy ground.” —Religion News Service