"The message of our Nativity encourages us to see God’s image and the love of Christ in every person," the church said amid the controversy

By Joelle Goldstein
December 09, 2019 07:51 PM
Credit: DAVID SWANSON/Shutterstock

A Methodist church in California is becoming the talk of the town after they recently criticized the Trump administration by setting up a nativity scene that portrayed Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees inside cages.

The new display on the grounds of Claremont United Methodist Church shows the Biblical family standing in individual cages — Joseph and Mary on each side of baby Jesus in the manger — and was set up to make a point about seeking refuge then versus now.

When reached out for comment by PEOPLE, Ristine had the following statement on behalf of the church that was also shared on the church’s website: “In a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at our borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family in the world, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the Holy Family.”

According to Biblical teachings, Joseph, Mary and Jesus were forced to flee from Nazareth to Egypt shortly after the baby’s birth in order to escape King Herod’s tyranny, risking persecution and death along the way.

However, the church claimed things would be much different if this event were to happen to the family of three 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,” Ristine’s statement continued.

A statue of Joseph in the cage
| Credit: DAVID SWANSON/Shutterstock

“In the Claremont United Methodist Church nativity scene this Christmas, the Holy Family takes the place of the thousands of nameless families separated at our borders,” Ristine added. “Inside the church, you will see this same family reunited, the Holy Family together, in a nativity that joins the angels in singing.”

After the display was set up, Rev. Karen Clark Ristine, the lead pastor at the church, shared a photo on her Facebook page.

The image was met with thousands of comments — some from those who supported the church’s actions, while others condemned them for “using this as a sign of hate toward our President.”

“Very clever- we think it’s awesome – thank you for bringing attention to this cruel and inhumane president’s agenda!” wrote one user.

“HOW DARE YOU!!! How dare you take the most HOLIEST/MIRACULOUS DAY and make it a Political Statement! And you call yourself a Reverend??? SHAME ON YOU!!!” added someone else.

A statue of Baby Jesus in the cage
| Credit: DAVID SWANSON/Shutterstock

Rev. Ristine and the church have since addressed the controversy in the wake of the post.

“We find the detention and family separation policy immoral in any administration, and this congregation has opposed those policies since their inception,” Ristine’s statement continued.

“For those who have asked why we did not do such displays previously, please know that we have. In both 2009 and 2012, in particular, our nativity displays attempted to raise similar awareness on immigration policy concerns.”

“We believe and proclaim that all people are made in God’s image. The message of our Nativity encourages us to see God’s image and the love of Christ in every person,” the statement added.

A statue of Mary inside a cage
| Credit: DAVID SWANSON/Shutterstock
Reporters at the church
| Credit: DAVID SWANSON/Shutterstock

Ristine later spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the decision to portray the family in cages and denied that the Nativity scene was attempting to take a political stand.

“We don’t see it as political; we see it as theological. I’m getting responses from people I don’t know … I am having people tell me that it moved them to tears,” she told the outlet. “So if the Holy Family and the imagery of the Holy Family and the imagery of a Nativity is something you hold dear, and you see them separated, then that’s going to spark compassion in many people.”

“We see this as, in some ways, the Holy Family standing in for the nameless families,” said Ristine, who has served as the lead pastor of the church’s 300-person congregation since July. “We’ve heard of their plight; we’ve seen how these asylum seekers have been greeted and treated. We wanted the Holy Family to stand in for those nameless people because they also were refugees.”

Ristine also added that the Nativity scene is often used to address societal issues and that Southern California’s homelessness crisis was previously depicted.

Rev. Karen Clark Ristine
| Credit: DAVID SWANSON/Shutterstock

President Donald Trump campaigned on restricting immigration, both legal and illegal, and has made it a central part of his administration.

His administration has faced a great deal of backlash regarding the treatment toward migrants, especially migrant children, which some have called inhumane and unfair after holding them in custody.

The conditions of detained migrants have also made national headlines this year following numerous reports of filth and neglect. Multiple migrant children have died in custody, as well.

RELATED VIDEO: ‘We Will Not Apologize.’ Head of Homeland Security Defends Controversial Immigration Policy

At the same time, border officials have said they are grappling with large numbers of migrants — mostly families and children, in contrast to the single migrant men who had made up much of the border crossings in years past.

Border officials have framed their failures as the result of too few resources to contend with too many migrants, but they say their medical staffing has improved since last year.