The Holy Family, separated and caged, in church protest

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The Holy Family, separated and caged, in church protest
A Christmas nativity scene depicts Jesus, Mary, and Joseph separated and caged, as if asylum seekers detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at Claremont United Methodist Church on December 9, 2019 in Claremont, California. The church hopes the display will prompt viewers to ask themselves what the family would face today if seeking refuge in the U.S. as they did when fleeing Nazareth to Egypt to escape capture by the forces of King Herod. The Claremont United Methodist Church has worked to assist asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. David McNew/Getty Images/AFP.

by Jose A. Del Real and Adeel Hassan

CLAREMONT (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- The Mylar blanket glitters like tinsel, but wrapped around the figure of the baby Jesus, it looks hostile and stark. His parents, Mary and Joseph, look on from their own chain-link cages. Barbed wire hovers overhead.

This is no typical Nativity scene.

Over the weekend, Claremont United Methodist Church, 30 miles east of Los Angeles, erected the display in protest of the treatment of migrants and refugees in the United States. The church’s leaders say they hope it will spark conversation about compassion and the tenets of Christian faith.

“This is a sacred family to us,” the Rev. Karen Clark Ristine said Monday, speaking in front of the cages. “We hold this family dear. And part of our vision is that they’re standing in for all the nameless others. For us, this is theological, this is not political.”

When the display went up Saturday night, Clark Ristine posted a photo of the scene on her Facebook page, and wrote, “In a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at our borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family in the world.”

Though the display makes no direct mention of President Donald Trump, it alludes to his immigration policies — and has already attracted criticism on that account. The Trump administration has mounted a wide-ranging campaign to discourage migration to the United States by sharply limiting the number of refugees and asylum-seekers who are admitted; detaining and prosecuting migrants who do not enter the United States through official border crossings; and other measures.

Among the most contentious has been the separation of families in detention. More than 5,400 migrant children are now in government custody and separated from their parents, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Community members say Claremont United Methodist Church has a long history of inclusion and advocacy. Along with red velvet Christmas bows and sparkling lights, the outside of the church is decorated with rainbow-colored signs announcing “All Are Welcome.” Peace signs made with colorful duct tape hang from a tree outside the main sanctuary.

Clark Ristine linked the biblical family’s experiences to those of modern refugees in her Facebook post. “Shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary were forced to flee with their young son from Nazareth to Egypt to escape King Herod, a tyrant,” she wrote. “They feared persecution and death. What if this family sought refuge in our country today?”

The church, near Route 66, has a 300-member congregation. The message of the Nativity scene, which is outdoors, has not been lost on supporters of the administration’s policies.

“How about you share the reason they are being separated, child trafficking, drugs, immunizations,” one person wrote on Facebook in response to Clark Ristine’s post, which has attracted more than 10,000 comments. “Not to mention that it is illegal to cross the border without proper vetting,” the commenter wrote.

Domonique Sanchez, 30, who has belonged to the church for decades, said Claremont as a town is “very neighborly” and dedicated to inclusion. She said she felt comforted that the church had taken a stance against family separation, even if it invited controversy by doing so.

“My family has been in this country for a very long time, for five generations, and we’re more American,” she said. “But racism is always an issue, it never goes away, and now it’s more blatant and in your face.”

Nativity scenes infused with a protest message are not new. Last winter, Fellowship Congregational Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, put up a chain-link fence around Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus and displayed a message on its marquee that read, “The holy family was a migrant family.”

The Claremont church’s display has attracted online messages of support as well as criticism. “Thank you for having the courage to stand up for those that many would prefer to forget about,” a commenter wrote on Facebook.

Clark Ristine, 59, said the church had a history of using the Nativity scene “as a form of public witness” to bring attention and compassion to important issues. The decision to focus on family separation, she said, had been in the works since the summer. As she spoke with reporters, members of the congregation came up to Clark Ristine to offer hugs and words of support.

“Stay strong, stay strong,” one told her.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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