An east Toronto church is urging Canadians to reflect on the plight of migrants and refugees with a poignant reimagining the Christian nativity scene that is so common during the holiday season.
The scene displayed outside the Eastminster United Church on Danforth Avenue features an infant Jesus alone in a cold steel cage. The baby is swathed in a solar blanket — an allusion to the children of mainly South American asylum seekers, separated from their parents and detained in sprawling facilities at the U.S.-Mexico border.
After all, in the Christian tradition, Jesus and his parents were themselves refugees forced to flee the fury of the paranoid King Herod of Judea, says interim minister Michiko Bown-Kai.
The installation was a joint effort between Bown-Kai and colleague Jane Sanden, who does communications for the church. They came up with the idea as they prepared for the beginning of Advent on Dec. 1 — for Christians, a weeks-long period of expectant waiting before the birth of Jesus.
“I was very interested in this idea of, how can we disrupt the idea that we should just sort of sit around and wait?” says Bown-Kai. “And what does our faith actually call us to right now in the present?
“I wanted us to have a visual art piece to engage in these questions because I think that justice work is spiritual and it’s important that we gather as a community to wrestle with the heartbreak of the injustices in the world.”
Bown-Kai, who uses the pronoun they, says in addition to the treatment of asylum seekers south of the border, the scene is intended to encourage people to think about the struggles of migrants more generally. In Canada, for example, migrant workers often face tough conditions and uncertainty, they add.
They also wants to bring attention to Canada’s role under the Safe Third Country Agreement. The bilateral pact requires that Canada deny asylum at ports of entry to refugees trying to leave the U.S.
Bown-Kai says that it amounts to national complicity in how migrants are treated in the U.S. The Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and The Canadian Council of Churches launched a legal challenge to the agreement in 2017. Hearings were held in federal court last month.
Bown-Kai and Sanden spent two days building the installation. At first it was displayed inside the church, where it sparked a “solemn” response from the congregation as they sat with the “heaviness” of what the scene represents.
This week, it was moved outside.
“We wanted the wider community to know that we are a church that is engaged with what’s happening in the world. We see our faith as something that draws us toward doing the work of justice,” Bown-Kai says.
That work can include political organizing, activism or volunteering to help refugees and migrants.
‘A large human family’
For Bown-Kai, faith and politics are inextricably intertwined. Bringing awareness of political and social justice issues, whether in Canada or elsewhere, is part of their job as an aspiring spiritual leader.
“As Christians, we understand ourselves to be part of a large human family. So the idea that borders would separate us from injustices is not how I understand my faith,” Bown-Kai says.
At least one other Christian church has used the Christmas season as an opportunity to protest the treatment of asylum seekers in the U.S.
A Methodist church in California made headlines this week with its outdoor own nativity scene featuring Jesus, Mary and Joseph in separate cages lined with barbed wire.
The reimagined manger scene in Toronto will remain on display until the end of Advent on Christmas Eve.