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A Church Nativity Scene Makes a Statement About Border Detentions

The display presents the figurines of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus separated by metal cages to evoke detention facilities at the US-Mexico border. “The role of public art is to raise awareness,” explains the church’s reverend.

CUMC’s 2019 nativity display (all photos by Rev. Karen Clark Ristine unless otherwise noted)

A United Methodist Church in Claremont, California has taken the advent season as an opportunity to raise awareness of a humanitarian crisis. Its nativity scene, inaugurated Saturday night, presents the figurines of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in individual metal cages evoking the chain-link pens infamously utilized by the Trump administration to imprison children in detention facilities at the US-Mexico border. Organized by Creative Peacemaking, a committee that works with the church council, the nativity continues Claremont United Methodist Church (CUMC)’s tradition of addressing timely and critical issues, from gun violence and police brutality to homophobia, through its annual advent display. This year, CUMC has moved many with its expression of solidarity and compassion — and also spurred a contentious debate on social media.

The caged nativity at Fellowship Congregational Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma last year (image courtesy of Fellowship Congregational Church)

CUMC is one of several progressive churches in the US that have transformed their nativity scenes into political actions. Last year, a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma similarly used its display to decry the current administration’s migration practices by surrounding the figurines of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph with a chain-link fence.

A theological statement published on CUMC’s website and printed on a placard near the nativity cites the family’s flight from Nazareth to Egypt after Jesus’s birth. The story, described in the Gospel of St. Matthew, among other writings, says Joseph and Mary sought refuge in Egypt to protect Jesus from the threat of infanticide. By presenting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in cages, CUMC connects the story of the holy family’s exile to the plight of modern-day refugees, explicitly referencing both the separation and incarceration of thousands of migrant families who attempt to cross the Southern border. Baby Jesus is wrapped in one of the so-called “solar blankets” seen in widely-circulated images of children detained in overcrowded and inadequate holding sites.

A figurine of baby Jesus swaddled in a “solar blanket”

“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 as more than 5,500 children have been the past three years,” the church’s statement urges.

This nativity is on view outside the church, while a conventional nativity, with baby Jesus wrapped in traditional swaddling cloths, can be found inside. The latter was conceived by CUMC’s Lead Pastor, Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, who insisted on using the same figurines featured outside in the indoor display. “It was important to me that once people came inside the church, they saw the same figures together, reunited as in the realm of God,” she said in a phone interview with Hyperallergic.

The traditional nativity inside CUMC

Rev. Ristine said in a Facebook post that she was “stirred to tears” by the scene outside. While some commenting on the post praise the church’s initiative, many other censure the nativity. Their qualms range from objections to the church’s interpretation of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees to accusations of a “democrat agenda” and “pervert[ing] religion for their own political purposes.”

As of this afternoon, the original Facebook post had more than 13,000 comments.

The church has a decade-long history of presenting highly creative, artistic, and often controversial nativity scenes. Its 2011 display, which depicted gay and lesbian couples, was vandalized, an incident later investigated as a hate crime.

The statement included alongside CUMC’s nativity display

The divided responses to this year’s nativity prompted the church to publish a press release, made available on its website yesterday, December 9. Titled “A Nativity to Affirm the Humanity of All People,” the statement thanks supporters and dissenters alike for their opinions and prayers and highlights the importance of the dialogue sparked by the display. “We ask that you hear the passion — in the voices of others as well as your own,” says the press release.

It also seeks to affirm that CUMC, which describes itself as “an inclusive community” on its Facebook page, has always condemned US detention and family separation policies, in any administration. Despite some claims that the church had not previously expressed this stance, CUMC says, “In both 2009 and 2012, in particular, our nativity displays attempted to raise similar awareness on immigration policy concerns.”

When asked about her thoughts on the negative responses shared online, Rev. Ristine affirmed the significance of the opportunity for an exchange. “For us, this is a public nativity that you might call public art,” she explained, adding that the outdoor display is highly visible to both cars and pedestrians passing by. “The role of public art is to raise awareness.”

This past October, CUMC hosted its 18th Immigration Clinic, providing free immigration and citizenship assistance to the public, and plans to offer another clinic on January 11, 2020.

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