By Mark Ellis
A contemporary interpretation of the nativity scene featuring homosexual couples holding hands was struck by vandals early Christmas morning in Southern California, an attack police are labeling a hate crime.
“Our congregation is a reconciling congregation,” says Rev. Dan Lewis, one of the appointed clergy staff at Claremont United Methodist Church. In 1993, after a “difficult” debate, the church decided to welcome homosexuals into the fold. “Gay and lesbians are not a large portion of our congregation, but we have a very public welcome.”
For the last several years, the church’s “creative peacemaking task force” has developed contemporary interpretations of the nativity, led by artist John Zachary. The first year the task force met they decided on a homeless theme, which featured the holy family in an alley laden with trash and shopping carts. “The original family was homeless,” Rev. Lewis notes.
In response to the display, people began to drop bags of groceries at the front of the nativity, which led to the birth of a Christmas homeless outreach.
Another nativity scene depicted the holy family in the hub of Middle East warfare, surrounded by soldiers in combat fatigues. Last year, Mary appeared as an African-American woman in a prison cell, without Joseph. “There are a great number of African-American women in prison compared to other ethnic groups,” Rev. Lewis notes.
The church receives a wide range of comment in response to their creative license. “It’s an interpretive art,” Rev. Lewis observes. “It’s to raise the consciousness of people going about their busy Christmas stuff,” he says. “What if Christ were to come today? Where might it be?”
The display that evoked controversy this year included a lighted “Tree of Life” with a “diversity statement” below it. Surrounding the tree were light boxes with three couples displayed. One box featured a male-female couple, another portrayed two women, and another two men – under the star of Bethlehem and a sign that declared “Christ is born.”
The creative director, artist John Zachary, viewed this year’s display as his most personal, because it depicted members from among
his family and friends – even as it was the one most removed from historic depictions of the nativity.
“This is the first year there has been damage,” Rev. Lewis says. “The sad and ironic part is the damage was done really early on Christmas morning.” Sometime in the dawning hours of Christmas, someone pushed over the light boxes portraying the homosexual couples, while the light box depicting the heterosexual couple remained standing.
Church officials were slow to label the damage a hate crime, but police quickly made that judgment. They made the decision because the attack was on church property and the action was directed toward a specific group, according to Rev. Lewis.
“These are provocative,” Rev. Lewis admits. “We want to stir people’s thinking and conversation, but we don’t want to stir people to vandalize.”
The diversity statement at the base of the lighted Plexiglas “Tree of Life” says the following:
“We must look to all people to discover the prophetic voice that is among us. The ancients looked to Christ as he delivered his radical message of love. Ironically, Christ was the victim of hate and intolerance while he taught love and compassion. We are living in a time where people need to embrace love instead of fighting and devouring one another. May we open our hearts as we celebrate the birth of Christ. Let us learn to embrace each other with openness and kindness. Let us practice Christ’s teachings by loving those who are different and those who need our compassion and join hands in celebration as brothers and sisters, sharing our voices and our differences.”