Sitting in the heart of downtown Indianapolis, on the lawn where Christ Church Cathedral erects its Nativity scene every year, is the holy family. But there’s no manger, shepherds, wise men or angels; just a chain-link fence surrounding the couple and the newborn.
Inside the fence, Mary sits on a wooden block, cradling baby Jesus in her arms as Joseph stands next to her looking down.
Christ Church Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Indianapolis, is protesting the detention of families under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting as many people as possible for crossing into the United States illegally. Justice Department lawyers said in a filing last week that families could be detained for longer than the 20-day limit required by a previous court settlement.
The Rev. Stephen Carlsen, the church’s dean and rector, said the news prompted the church to create a display showing a “detained” holy family. Joseph and Mary were not any different from migrant families fleeing violence from their home countries, he said. The couple fled to Egypt after Herod ordered the execution of baby boys in Bethlehem, according to the Bible.
“People forget what that scene means,” Carlsen told The Washington Post. “That was a homeless couple who weren’t welcome anywhere, who took refuge in the barn, and it was to that couple that the Christ child was born.”
“What we take away from these stories is the same thing we take away from our teachings and religious ethics,” Carlsen added. “The heart of God is always with those who are on the margins, who are vulnerable and have no voice.”
The Episcopal church, in a blue city in a blue county in the middle of red-state Indiana, is known for being politically active and has been vocal in its criticism of the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to immigration.
“This issue isn’t a new one for us,” Carlsen said. “We’ve been working pastorally and also raising our voices on behalf of families who have come to our country seeking safety and seeking a future for their children.”
Last weekend, the church joined the Families Belong Together rally outside the Indiana Statehouse to protest the separation of families. Hundreds of similar protests took place across the country. In 2014, the church was among a handful of religious organizations that married gay couples after the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was ruled unconstitutional.
Christ Church Cathedral announced the display in an early-morning tweet Tuesday using the hashtags #EveryFamilyIsHoly and #CadaFamiliaEsSagrada.
“On our lawn tonight we placed The Holy Family . . . in #ICE detention,” the church tweeted.
The display is reminiscent of photos of migrants in large pens with chain-link walls at a detention center in Texas. Similar images circulated in the news media during the 2014 migrant crisis under the Obama administration.
Carlsen said he has spent some time standing on the sidewalk in front of the church to talk to people about the display. He said some people aren’t able to see the parallel immediately.
“People have to connect the dots. That’s what’s so powerful about a religious icon,” he said. “Some people connect the dots and disagree. Other people connect the dots and I can see their heart soften.”
More than 2,500 children were sent to shelters and facilities across the country between May and June. In defending the family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited a Bible passage invoked by defenders of slavery. The passage, Romans 13, says that God has ordained the government for his purposes.
But Trump reversed course amid a public uproar that included condemnation from religious leaders, including Pope Francis. He signed an executive order that ended family separations and instructed the Department of Homeland Security to keep families together while in custody. The administration said about 500 children have since been reunited with their parents.
Carlsen said he does not know how long the display will be outside the church.
“How long is it needed?” he said. “I would love for it to be outdated and be taken down. That would be my greatest wish.”