For 42 years, each church in the small town of Bellevue, Ky., has participated in the annual nativity procession, when people of the community gather at the nativity scene for gospel readings and a candlelight vigil to kick-off the Christmas season. But this year, the tradition will be different when it takes place Dec. 6. The nativity display had to be moved from a local park, no longer permitted to stand on city-owned property, and was relocated to the spacious front lawn of St. John United Church of Christ. But, largely because of the congregation's extravagant welcome, the other four churches in Bellevue have decided not to take part in the beloved event this year.
"We were the only place that had space for it," the Rev. Keith Haithcock, the openly-gay pastor of St. John UCC, said of the life-sized nativity scene. "Then all of a sudden, it began to surface that our location was causing controversy for some people because of our Open and Affirming stance."
Haithcock extended invitations to the heads of each Bellevue church. He said two declined to participate for various reasons, one did not respond at all, and the other told Haithcock his church would not participate because St. John UCC does not follow the teachings of Christ. Since then, one of the churches has erected its own nativity scene on its front lawn, but Haithcock doesn't know if the church is also planning its own procession or event.
"When you live in the bubble world of the UCC, you sometimes forget about these kinds of approaches to theology that can separate rather than unite," Haithcock said. "It's been a very painful experience for me personally and for our congregation, but the good news is we are all holding our heads pretty high."
St. John UCC has received notable support from Bellevue residents and from churches in surrounding communities. Clergy and members from a number of UCC churches in nearby cities such as Cincinnati will attend, as well as the pastor from a Presbyterian congregation in Dayton, Ky. Bellevue's mayor has expressed support for St. John UCC, and local news stations have publicized the controversy.
The nativity procession typically draws 50-60 people from the 1-square-mile town, but Haithcock doesn't know how many people will attend this year. While the unexpected response from his fellow clergy has shrouded the typically joyful tradition with negativity and judgment, Haithcock hopes this year's event ultimately sends a broader message of inclusivity and acceptance.
"I am expecting to be surprised at how many people show up," Haithcock said. "I'm hoping there are no negative reactions or protesters. I couldn't image that there would be, but I also couldn't imagine this from the other clergy.
"The strong message that has been coming from people is, ‘This is ridiculous, this is Christmas, we should be getting together,'" Haithcock added. "It doesn't matter who you are, let's get out there and celebrate Christmas."