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What it takes to make, and read, a statement

by John Pixley

When I was in high school and college, and for many years afterward, my dad would see my hair and what I was wearing and ask, “Are you making a statement?”

For years, I would adamantly deny it. “No!” I would proclaim hotly, both indignant and guilty. “I am not making a statement!” Like he was both accusing me of a crime and catching me red-handed.

Like making a statement is a crime.

It took me a long time to face up to it. Not that making a statement is a crime. It took me a long time to see and understand that I was making a statement. Of course, I was.

Perhaps I was not sure of the kind of statement I was making. Perhaps I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to say. Or was it that I didn’t know that I could say something in this way, that it was okay to make such a statement?

Most likely, it was all of the above. And no doubt par for the course for anyone working their way to becoming their own person.

I have been thinking about my father’s question since seeing the nativity scene in front of the Claremont Methodist Church over the holidays. With its seasonal tableau, it seemed that the church on Foothill Boulevard was offering an intriguing lesson on making statements. Either it was scaling back and toning things down, or it was making a bold comment about making bold comments.

That the church may have wanted to tone things down this Christmas is understandable. In recent years, the church has been known for its provocative nativity scenes. Jesus has been depicted being born in a homeless encampment and in a jail, among other places.

Last year’s nativity scene—the one closing out 2011—turned out to be exceptionally provocative. A more abstract tableau depicting same-sex couples following a star, it was so provocative that it was vandalized. The star was taken down, and some of the figures were set askew or knocked over.

The vandalism took place late on Christmas Eve or early on Christmas Day and was written up in the Los Angeles Times. It was not good Christmas PR for a church.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see this year’s nativity scene. I was both disappointed and not surprised to see a fairly standard version of the birth scene, complete with straw bales and cardboard camels. It was a nice touch, though, that Joseph was wearing a Claremont Community School of Music T-shirt.

There was also a small sign explaining that this “historical Nativity scene…stands as a symbol of acceptance and even celebration of those who have been outcast” and that Jesus “was born in poverty, out of wedlock and from a foreign land.” It went on to state, “In our effort to give meaning to OUR holiday, we have often stigmatized the poor and the undocumented people among us by creating customs and ceremonies that include those with means and say to the poor and those who do not look like us or speak our language ‘we were not thinking of you when we planned this’ or ‘you don’t belong.’”

This was a powerful statement regarding the outsider and what the Christmas message says about how we treat the outsider. But, as a friend commented after hearing this description, it was too bad that it wasn’t more evident in the scene itself. It is too bad, my friend commented, that there wasn’t an even bolder statement made after the vandalism the previous year.

But wait—what was the chain-link fence that the sign was on, that surrounded the scene? There was an opening at the front, but it was nonetheless weird and disturbing to see this ugly, stark barricade. Even more jarring were the 2 other signs that stood out much more, the bold red and white signs—one that said “No trespassing, loitering, unauthorized parking” and the other one warning that there was 24-hour surveillance.

I wondered if the fence and the warning signs were there to protect the nativity scene, to keep the vandals away. This made sense, but it sure was sad. I saw that, of course, this was the point. This was the statement. The ugly, stark fence and the bold threatening signs and the way they were weird and disturbing and jarring, the way they made me feel a bit like an outsider might feel, was the statement.

As another friend said after seeing the tableau, “This is what you get after a hate crime.”

This is just one statement in a world full of more and more statements. But it reminds us to take care and have the courage to make statements that need to be made and at least as much to take them.

Not a bad statement as we venture into a new year.

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