A Nativity Scene In Claremont Features Baby Jesus, Mary And Joseph In Cages

A Christmas nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph separated and caged, as if asylum seekers detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on December 9, 2019. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Outside of Claremont United Methodist Church, instead of a manger, there are three large cages. Baby Jesus is in one cage, swaddled in a foil blanket. The Virgin Mary is in another, with her arms outstretched toward her caged child. Joseph is in the third.

According to Reverend Karen Clark Ristine, the church's lead pastor, the nativity scene is meant to represent migrant families separated at the border. "We see the Holy Family standing in for the nameless families," she said. "And we hope it inspires people to think about compassion."

The Christmas nativity scene outside Claremont United Methodist Church features baby Jesus in a cage. It's meant to comment on family separation. (Erick Galindo/LAist)

The church has a long tradition of using its Christmas nativity scenes as social commentary. In 2013, baby Jesus was a bloody Trayvon Martin. They've also tackled homelessness and often immigration.

"This is a church that has a very long history of helping refugees," Ristine said. "It's a congregation that has regular immigration clinics to help people who want to apply for legal citizenship. So it was just really important [to continue] that part of the tradition, and family separation became the issue."

A Christmas nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph separated and caged, as if asylum seekers detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on December 9, 2019. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Ristine said she doesn't necessarily expect this visual to change political ideology. "If seeing the Holy Family in plight causes people to want to help others, even if it's not on that issue, that would be good inspiration," she explained. "It seems to have connected to people in a way that is bringing about some conversation."

The installation was completed Saturday night, and soon after, photos of this year's scene went viral, causing a steady stream of people like Steve Hampton to come out Monday morning to see it. Hampton was not a fan.

While the Christmas nativity scene outside Claremont United Methodist Church features the Holy Family in cages, the one inside the church features the family reunited. (Erick Galindo/LAist)

"I believe people have a right to say and do what they want, but I think this is inappropriate," Hampton said. "I understand their purpose here. They say this represents what would happen to Christ if he came across the border. It's not really true. It's a different time, a different world. And this is going overboard."

But others said they came to see the nativity because they were impressed by the strong message.

"We thought this was something that's very powerful," David Reed said. "While it draws attention to the suffering, [it reminds us] we're responsible for alleviating that and helping those people."

The Virgin Mary is in a cage outside a church in Claremont. (Erick Galindo/LAist)

Yvonne Cervantes-Coleman owns a sewing studio that's across the street from the church. She got to see the construction of the cages and said she knew right away what was going in them. "When I first saw it, I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be interesting. These are going to be cages.' And sure enough, when it was finished, I was astounded."

Cervantes-Coleman said she was proud to be across from the church and that, to her, the nativity scene is not what's inappropriate.

"The fact that we are caging human beings is shocking," she said. "The fact that children are dying, the fact that children are being separated from their parents is pretty horrific."

A Christmas nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph separated and caged, as if asylum seekers detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, on December 9, 2019. (David McNew/Getty Images)