Church’s Nativity pays homage to Black lives

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

The annual thought provoking—and sometimes controversial—Nativity at the Claremont United Methodist Church is back, and this year it draws a tie between the Holy Family and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Nativity shows Mary, Joseph and Jesus situated in front of a mural of masked protesters holding signs with messages including “I can’t breathe” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Above the scene, and below the star of Bethlehem, is a list of 33 names of Black Americans who have been killed.

Joseph is seen kneeling over the infant Jesus while Mary raises her hands to the sky mimicking the posture of the protestors in the painted scene. From a distance, the figures blend into the brightly colored background, sending the message that the Holy Family is part of the protest. 

“We affirm and join the call for justice and equity by the Black Lives Matter movement to ensure that Black lives matter as much as any other life,” a theological statement posted in front of the Nativity reads. “Our faith in Christ challenges us to stand with Mary in her call for justice for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.”

The church offers a perspective of the Holy Family as marginalized citizens. In particular Mary, a young Jewish woman, is described in the church’s statement as “powerless in the face of those who ruled.”

Associate Pastor Martha Morales told the COURIER on Monday that the church’s Creative Peace Making Committee generally begins to plan for the Nativity as early as March. This year they discussed many possibilities, including the coronavirus pandemic, but after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor it became clear that the message would be about racial justice in America.

“Yes, of course, we are very concerned about the coronavirus and all the deaths but that will receive a lot of attention. And what is it that is always pushed to the back burner, and doesn’t get the spotlight shone on it throughout our history? The plight of African Americans,” Ms. Morales said.

The artist, Genaro Cordova, is a longtime employee and member of the church who as a young man was a refugee from El Salvador. He had been detained along with his children but the Methodist church helped to secure his release and he has been a member of the community ever since.

He made some drawings for this year’s Nativity and presented them to the committee. After seeing his concept, Ms. Morales suggested that the protesters should be grayscale so as not to compete visually with the Holy Family. But Mr. Cordova stuck by his original design saying that it needed the bright colors to attract people’s attention.

“I think that was a genius decision. Because what happens is that the Holy Family does not stand out from the protestors but becomes part of the protesters,” Ms. Morales said.

As the staff was staging the Nativity in the weeks before Advent, Ms. Morales remarked that seeing Mary’s raised hands reminded her of the “Magnificat” from the Gospel of Luke: “You have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; You have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s statement that God stands with the poor, oppressed and marginalized, which is included in the theological statement for this year’s Nativity, provides a mirror through which the viewer can reflect on the effects of systemic racism in America.

“I think we need to be awakened to what is the privilege of being white and how difficult it is to be an African American in the U.S. even now,” Ms. Morales said. “We all benefit from systems that advantage us over others and I think we have to be aware of that. And work to change that. We [the church] are trying to create a dialog around that.”

The Nativity at the Methodist church has become a Christmas tradition here in Claremont, although not everyone agrees with mixing current events, politics and the story of Jesus’ birth.

Last year the church depicted the Holy Family in cages symbolizing migrants separated from each other by immigration officials at the border between the United States and Mexico. That particular Nativity drew international attention and was both praised and derided by the many hundreds of people who contacted the church.

In a previous year, the church showed Mary as a homeless mother cradling her child in a bus enclosure. Another year, Treyvon Martin was seen bleeding from a gunshot wound. In 2011 a depiction of same sex couples with the message “choose love” was vandalized.

“Our goal is not to upset people but to encourage conversation and encourage some reflection—maybe challenge some of the ways we all think,” Ms. Morales said.

Claremont United Methodist Church’s Nativity, which can be seen on the north side of Foothill Boulevard, adjacent to the Claremont School of Theology, will be on display through the first week of January.

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