A California church has transformed its Christmas nativity scene into a statement about family separation, asking Americans to reflect on what they refer to as “the most well-known refugee family in the world” this holiday season.
“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. They feared persecution and death,” lead pastor at the Claremont United Methodist Church, Karen Clark Ristine, wrote in a Facebook post on Saturday. “What if this family sought refuge in our country today?”
“Imagine Joseph and Mary separated at the border and Jesus no older than two, taken from his mother and placed behind the fences of a border patrol detention center as more than 5,500 children have been the past three years,” she wrote.
A photo of the nativity scene shows Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus separated from each other in large, rectangular metal and chain-link cages, that have barbed wires and spikes at the top. Each of the figures (with the exception of baby Jesus) is facing the other, which Ristine said symbolizes the “thousands of nameless families separated at our borders.”
The Claremont United Methodist Church did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
The nativity scene is a nod to U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policy of forcibly separating children from migrant parents who seek asylum in the nation.
The “zero tolerance” policy was introduced in May last year. It places adults who try to cross into the U.S. illegally — many of whom plan to seek asylum — in custody, where they undergo criminal prosecution.
The policy resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents. Trump walked it back two months later following international outrage, with an executive order, but there were several reports earlier this year that families were still being forcibly separated and detained.
The congregation is no stranger to controversy, taking aim at Trump administration policies in previous years. Labelling themselves as “an inclusive community responding to God’s love” on their website, their past nativity scenes have included Trayvon Martin, gay couples and depicted homeless Mary and Joseph figures.
Their website touts volunteer work done with asylum seekers at the U.S. border, and a recent post said the church raised $10,000 for Justice For Our Neighbors, an organization that provides legal counsel for detained and separated children.
Ristine indicated a second nativity scene inside the church, with the same family reunited, “in a nativity that joins the angels in singing ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to all.'”
Since Ristine’s post, the photo of the nativity scene has gone viral, with some praising the church for their bold statement.
Last year, a church in Massachusetts sent a similar message, placing a baby Jesus figurine in a black metal cage to create a dialogue about American immigration policies.
Leaders at St. Susanna Parish, a Roman Catholic congregation in Dedham, said they wanted to shine a spotlight on the Trump administration’s actions towards migrants.
“We wanted to put a mirror image of the world into the stable,” parish priest Steve Josoma told HuffPost last year.