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Claremont Nativity scene still garnering nationwide attention

A nativity scene in front of the Claremont United Methodist Church has caused a nationwide stir due to the way the holy family is depicted—Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus incarcerated in cages.

The nativity shows the baby Jesus in a chain-link cage swaddled not in blankets but in solar wrap; Mary and Joseph, positioned in their own cages on each side of the infant, have their arms reaching out to him. The nativity is in response to reports of immigrant families being separated at the southern border.

It’s a provocative display that has elicited strong reactions from both sides of the political divide. But Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, lead pastor at CUMC, doesn’t see the nativity scene as a political statement.

“We see it as theological,” Rev. Ristine said. “We see it as us responding to what we feel like is Christ’s calling.

The reverend, who joined CUMC in July, points to Matthew 25:35, in which Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

“That really is our theological inspiration, to witness to the love of God for all,” Rev. Ristine said. “So it’s hard for us to look at this nativity, because we hold the holy family very sacred. And so for us, we see the holy family standing in for the nameless families.”

She said she hopes the display will spark conversation. “I hope it allows people to talk to their relatives who are of different minds, maybe by saying, ‘Did you see that image?’” she said.

This is not the first time the nativity display at CUMC has garnered national attention. In 2013, the church featured Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was gunned down by a security guard and whose death sparked national outrage, as the baby Jesus. In 2011, the church depicted both a heterosexual couple and a same-sex couple side-by-side. As reported by the COURIER, the same-sex depiction was vandalized beyond repair, while the heterosexual depiction was untouched.

When Rev. Ristine first met with the church in July, it was already established that this year’s nativity display had to be about family separation.

“This is a church that has a very long history of helping refugees resettle,” Rev. Ristine said. “It’s a congregation that has regular immigration clinics to help people who want to apply for legal citizenship. So it was just really important for them to live into that part of their tradition.”

Rev. Martha Morales, associate pastor at the church, said CUMC has called attention to immigration issues through their nativity scenes before, in 2009 and 2012.

“We believe that we see Christ in all people, and Jesus said, ‘So as you’ve done it to the least of these, so have you done it to me,’” Rev. Morales said. “So we continue to bring this word—that as we are doing inhumane things to our neighbors, we are doing these things to Chrnatist.” 

CUMC has another nativity scene inside the church, which depicts the holy family together without cages. Rev. Ristine said this was an important part of the message.

“It was exceptionally important to me that there would be an image of the family, the same figures, inside the church and reunified as we believe it is and will be in the realm of God,” she said.

Rev. Ristine shared the first image of the nativity to her personal Facebook page, along with a statement of compassion, on Saturday evening. When she went to bed, she said she was surprised to see it had 1,400 shares. By Monday afternoon, that total has ballooned to over 22,000 shares, with people all around the world talking about it.

“I am surprised it has become a worldwide conversation,” Rev. Ristine said. “That’s why my hope is that we lead with compassion, and that the people who are having those conversations engage it with compassion.”

As news of the nativity spread throughout social media and across the world, many comments expressed support of the display while others vehemently condemned it, claiming the church was ruining Christmas and threatening to forcefully take down the nativity. Rev. Ristine’s personal Facebook page has been inundated with angry comments and Donald Trump memes.

At least one resident has created a change.org petition urging the city to remove the display. As of Thursday, the petition has three signatories.

In a statement, the city said the nativity scene was installed on private property using private funds, did not violate codes or ordinances and was protected as free speech by the First Amendment.

But on a quiet Monday morning, with the nativity mostly obscured by television news vans, only a couple of onlookers were standing by to take pictures. One visitor left a small bouquet of flowers in a water bottle at the foot of baby Jesus’ cage.

Steve and Joan Stevens saw the nativity scene on Facebook and drove from their Diamond Bar home to see it in person.

“It brings tears to my eyes, actually,” Ms. Stevens said. “Because we feel the same way—it’s wrong. So to see it, and to see what this church has been brave enough to do…to just put it out there in front of all of us, I wish more of our churches would do the same thing.”

After viewing the display, the couple walked into the church office and made a donation. Mr. Stevens said they did it as a way to say thank you.

“Maybe it will help people think,” Mr. Stevens said.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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