LOS ANGELES — On the lawn of a Claremont church, just like at many churches at this time of year, cutouts of wise men on camelback head toward a makeshift stable, a meager wooden structure where Mary and Joseph have huddled inside.
But instead of an infant Jesus cradled in his mother’s arms, the Nativity at Claremont United Methodist Church — the creation of congregant and artist John Zachary — features a depiction of Trayvon Martin slumped over in his hoodie, a pool of his blood spreading over a bed of straw.
For several years, Zachary has brought his artistic interpretations of the Nativity — as well as the occasional controversy — to the church, as he uses a scene that traditionally conveys themes of joy and innocence to spread messages of social justice. Over the last few years, his installations have touched on homelessness, poverty and acceptance of gay families.
He decided over the summer that this year’s scene would include the Florida teenager whose shooting death captured the nation’s attention. Zachary said he wanted to draw a parallel between rampant gun violence and the dark time in which Jesus was born.
“He was, in my view, an innocent child like the innocent children killed by King Herod,” Zachary, 57, said of Martin. “I think the Nativity has to be relevant to our time. I think Jesus is a symbol of hope and I think he has to be seen in today’s context.”
But what he sees as a respectful, if provocative, way to stir conversation has others fuming. Ever since the Nativity got national attention last week, when a local newspaper’s story went viral, the church has been bombarded with phone calls, emails and Facebook messages.
The scene, which will remain in place through Jan. 5, has been blasted as “sacrilege” and an “abomination.”
“How sad to replace the Savior in the nativity scene,” one person posted on Facebook. “What kind of church is this??? I pray that you will understand the real reason for the season...”
“No Christian I know would ever disparage Jesus Christ with such a repulsive image,” wrote another. “I would never attend your church as a fellow Methodist and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
The Rev. Dan Lewis, a pastor at the church, said he feared many of those complaining had seen only the photographs that had spread online but hadn’t read the statement by Zachary on a placard next to it, explaining his vision. The scene was meant to do more than shock people, he said; it was also meant to be thought-provoking.
“Nothing is done flippantly here,” Lewis said. “It’s got great thought, great depth and great meaning.”
Lewis said some members of the congregation disagree with the Nativity, and he was hesitant when he first saw Zachary’s renderings. Zachary admitted that even he had some doubts.
“I have had reservations, although I have come to think that it’s the right way to do it,” he said. “I feel a little sad that some people are so outraged about it.”
Around dusk on Friday, Moni Law pulled up to the scene with her son, Matthew Law-Phipps. Law, a housing counselor in Berkeley, had grown up in Claremont, and when she went back to visit family for Christmas, she would go see Zachary’s work. “It pulled at your heart and your mind,” she said.
“God calls us to speak truth to the reality of the world,” she said. “Why would we ignore this travesty of justice?”
Law-Phipps, a 22-year-old Loyola Marymount film student, said he saw something that was more personal than political, and more about violence than race.
“That is brave,” he said. “It’s very blatant. Subtlety isn’t at work here.... I will say, it got our attention.”
As mother and son stood back, taking in a Nativity scene caked in blood and talking about violence, he figured that’s exactly what the artist intended.
Distributed by MCT Information Services