Church makes statement with Black Lives Matter-themed nativity scene: 'It was a natural choice'

Kerry Justich
A church in Southern California places its nativity scene amongst a Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo: Claremont United Methodist Church)
A church in Southern California places its nativity scene amongst a Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo: Claremont United Methodist Church)

A church in California is making a statement about racial injustice in America by turning its nativity scene into a display of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The scene that sits just outside of Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont features the Virgin Mary, Joesph and a racially ambiguous baby Jesus in front of a wall of protestors holding up signs reading “I can’t breathe,” “Jesus wept” and “Racism is a pandemic too.” Just above the illustration, a sign reads, “Say their names” with a list of Black Americans who were unjustly murdered, including Emmett Till, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Pam Bunce, who chairs the Creative Peacemaking Committee responsible for the nativity scene at the church, tells Yahoo Life that making socially impactful statements with the display is something that they’ve done at the church for just over a decade.

“Each year we look at social justice issues, and select the theme for that year. Our church property is just a frontage road away from [a busy boulevard], so is highly visible to the community,” she explains. “We believe that, as beautiful as the Christmas story is, it's only the beginning. We believe that Jesus came to Earth to minister to the marginalized and the oppressed. It's not a sentimental story. It's a bold story of commitment and service. Too often that part of the story is left out.”

Just last year, the progressive congregation made headlines for a display that showed Jesus separated from each of his parents by cages, reflecting what was taking place at the southern U.S. border. This year, the tragic deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police officers was what the church chose to tackle.

“Our committee starts brainstorming the issues sometime mid summer. We narrow things down, choose our theme, come up with a basic design, and eventually install our display,” Bunce says, noting that protests in response to Floyd’s murder were happening around the same time. “Our church has had a study series on dismantling racism. We were heartsick by the fact that so many Black lives were being taken by the police and vigilante groups. We had a Black Lives Matter banner posted at the nativity display site before we installed the display. It was a natural choice for us.”

Still, critics on social media have called the scene “disgraceful” and say it’s a display of “blasphemy!” According to the words of the church’s pastor, Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, and the theological statement displayed alongside the scene and on the church’s website, however, calling for justice is in fact in line with the congregation’s message.

“Mary knows the sorrow of any parent who has ever lost a child, and she stands in solidarity with all who seek justice,” Ristine wrote on Facebook.

“We see the issues we present as being moral and theological,” Bunce adds. “They can be interpreted politically, but that's not our desire.”

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