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Nativity scene highlighting Trayvon Martin ignites passions

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.

“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, e-mails and Facebook messages. The scene, which will remain in place through Jan. 5, has been blasted as “sacrilege” and an “abomination.”

“No Christian I know would ever disparage Jesus Christ with such a repulsive image,” one person posted on Facebook. “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.

“Nothing is done flippantly here,” Lewis said. “It’s got great thought, great depth and great meaning.”

Matthew 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.”

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