The Rev. Steve Josoma had no intention of his church becoming known for politics.
The 64-year-old pastor at St. Susanna, a Catholic Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts, located just outside Boston, wasn’t trying to make waves or cause controversy last Christmas when he decided to put a cage around the Baby Jesus in the St. Susanna’s nativity scene, and wall off the Three Wise Men — he was merely trying to start a conversation.
He’s far from the only one. Churches across the country are using Christmas nativity scenes to make political statements and protests, from putting the Holy Family in cages, in a nod to the Southern border crisis, to depicting animals in the manger underwater and a creeping tide about to overtake Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in a nod to climate change.
The displays have drawn both support and outrage from churchgoers and passers-by. Pastors agree that churches shouldn’t be partisan. But the Gospel is inherently political, they say, and it’s their job to facilitate conversations about morals and values, regardless of which party their congregants belong too.
In Dedham, the display last year was anchored by a large banner that read “Peace on Earth?” It wasn’t the parish’s first time wading into social issues. In December 2017, St. Susanna had set up its regular nativity scene in front of large signs that listed some of the biggest mass shootings in U.S. history, and the number of people who died in those slayings.
“People have this weird notion that nativity scenes are more like a scene from a child’s Charles Dickinson story,” Josoma says. “But St. Francis originally put out the nativity scene in Italy to show what dire circumstances Jesus was born into. We romanticize it as cute and cuddly and warm, but who wants to be born in an animal trough?”
The 2017 idea came after the country had suffered through another mass shooting — Josoma can’t remember which one, he says, because there’s too many to keep track of — and politicians were tweeting out the usual messages of “thoughts and prayers.”
“The response of ‘thoughts and prayers’ felt like the new normal and we were having conversations about how this is not normal — and how could we get people to think about it more?” Josoma recalls.
He’s guessing that in Southern California, the leadership at Claremont United Methodist had a similar motivation when it revealed its nativity scene earlier this month with each member of the Holy Family in its own separate cage. On Facebook, the Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, the church’s lead pastor, explained, “in a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at the borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family in the world.”
In the Bible, the Holy Family seeks asylum in Egypt shortly after Jesus is born.
As of Friday morning, there were nearly 3,500 comments on the Facebook photo, and the reaction was mixed.
“A woman being pastor is not biblical,” reads one of the first comments. “Breaking the laws is also not biblical — stop being an activist and let someone else preach truth in that church.”
“Thank you ma’am for having the courage to state what most Christian organizations and most Christians don’t!” reads the comment right under it.
When Josoma read about Claremont, he reached out to encourage Ristine. He couldn’t get through, so he left a voicemail. He’s willing to bet that Claremont, like St. Susanna last year, has been inundated with calls, and simply hasn’t had time to return them all.
Ristine did not return multiple requests for comment from USA TODAY.
At St. Susanna, things got particularly heated last year when Fox News anchor Sean Hannity used St. Susanna as an example of how Christmas was “under attack.” Despite messages of support from its direct congregation and community, St. Susanna heard from hundreds of Fox viewers who were encouraged by Hannity to voice their displeasure at Josoma & Co.
“Our phones rang off the hook for three days straight,” Josoma says. “It was a disaster. Anyone who’s name was associated with the parish in some way, they got trolled by the MAGA people. It was just awful.”
This year, St. Susanna opted to set up a nativity scene under climate siege, with drowned animals and plastic water bottles floating in water, and the encroaching tide inching closer and closer to the Holy Family, threatening to pull them under. The banner this year reads, “God so loved the earth … will we?”
But after all the trolling, why go willing back into the fray? Josoma laughs at the question.
“Last year right after it happened, I was hanging out with my sister and brother-in-law and he said to me, ‘Steven, you’re on target if you’re catching a lot of flak.’” Josoma recalls. “And he’s right. Catching flak isn’t a reason to back down, it’s a reason to keep going. Religious art is supposed to start conversations, and act as a way to hold a mirror up to society.”
The Rev. Chris Moore agrees with that sentiment. Last year at Fellowship Congregation Church, part of the United Church of Christ, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Moore serves as lead pastor, the nativity scene also had the Holy Family caged. Moore says the display was meant to kickstart conversations about immigration policies in the U.S., but wasn’t necessarily tied only to Donald Trump. He pointed to the fact that Barack Obama, who served as president from 2009 through 2017, deported 1.8 million people his first three years in the White House.
When Moore set out the fence outside Fellowship Congregation, “I did it with a little contrition,” he says. “It was part confession, too — like, hey, maybe I didn’t do enough around this issue before. It was also an action on myself.”
As for the notion that church and politics should always be separate, Moore, 50, isn’t buying it. The University of Oregon graduate got involved with faith in college when he protested the first Gulf War during a candlelight vigil at a church in Eugene, Oregon.
“What I find people mean when they say ‘the church shouldn’t be political’ is that they actually mean the church shouldn’t be partisan — and I agree,” Moore says. “But we should be talking about values and how we work those out in public. There are a lot of people who want to have one set of values on Sunday mornings, and a different set of values the rest of the week. And that’s something I think the church should have a lot to say about.”
Moore views last year’s political statement as “a one-off,” so Fellowship Congregation’s nativity scene will be traditional this season — provided they get it set up in time for Christmas. They’re running a little behind on decorating, he says.
The rise of political nativity scenes — they were especially common last Christmas season, though one church in Indianapolis put Jesus in a cage in July 2018 when the border crisis first exploded — has even inspired some jealousy.
Just outside Portland, Oregon, the Rev. Adam Ericksen of Clackamas United Church of Christ says he has some “holy envy” for Claremont United Methodist and other churches that have gotten creative with their nativity displays.
Ericksen has drawn attention locally for his series of politically-themed reader board signs that have included messages like “Welcome immigrants but only if they speak English — said the Bible never” and “King Herod separated children from their parents — Matthew Ch. 2 says that’s bad.” This year, Clackamas United Church of Christ put together a calendar of the reader board’s greatest hits and plans to use the profits to turn their church into a warming shelter for homeless people.
“Our faith is supposed to influence every aspect of our lives,” Ericksen says. “God comes to Moses and says, ‘Go to Pharaoh and set my people free.’ Can you imagine if Moses said, ‘Sorry, God, that’s too political’? We wouldn’t be here!”
Clackamas United Church of Christ, Ericksen admits, was slow on the nativity scene uptake, and they don’t necessarily have extra funds to buy a high-quality fence. But they’re already brainstorming potential ideas for next year.
One suggestion from a congregant: The Holy Family was Middle Eastern, so what if they removed all the people of color from the nativity scene? Then there’d only be animals left — and that would certainly make a statement.