Despite unrelenting snow, about 65 people braved the elements to kick off the holiday season at the annual nativity procession in Bellevue, Ky., last Friday. And despite the controversy that surfaced when the nativity scene was moved from a public park to the lawn of St. John United Church of Christ, Bellevue's only open and affirming congregation, the Rev. Keith Haithcock says the event was an unexpected success that drew encouragement and support from people as far away as Hawaii and as nearby as next door.
"I feel that this was perhaps one of the best outreach events we've done in my 15 years here," said the pastor of St. John UCC. "It is now no longer a conflict, but rather a witness to the extravagant welcome we state and live out."
For 42 years, each church in the small town of Bellevue participated in the annual event that brings the community to the nativity scene in the local park for gospel readings and a candlelight vigil. This year, the nativity scene had to be moved from city-owned property and was relocated to the front lawn of St. John UCC, the only space in Bellevue large enough for the life-sized display. But, Haithcock says, largely because of St. John UCC's extravagant welcome, the other four churches in Bellevue backed out of the event this year – a decision that both shocked and saddened Haithcock and his congregation.
When word of the controversy spread – and was even featured on the local news – Haithcock received an outpouring of support from the residents of Bellevue and friends and colleagues across the UCC and beyond, many who thought the other churches were clouding the true meaning of Christmas by dividing rather than uniting the community.
"The snow did a hit, but we proceeded. I'm guessing we would have had at least 150 to 200 [people attend] if the weather had stayed nice," Haithcock said. "It was a good start and something to build on for next year."
The Rev. Holly Robertson Taylor, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in neighboring Dayton, Ky., was one ecumenical ally who made sure to attend the event despite the snow. Although the two churches had never collaborated before, Robertson Taylor's belief that churches should be open and welcoming to all – and her disbelief that the other Bellevue churches dropped out of the event – inspired her to come and show her support.
"I was appalled," she said of the controversy. "I was so shocked that people would be closed-minded enough to not be able to look past the politics and personal beliefs of individuals and see the Christ within them. They are stuck on one aspect of an individual instead of looking at the beliefs of love and gratitude and faith that these people have each and every day."
The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, the UCC's executive minister for LGBT concerns, was also disappointed by the response of the other Bellevue churches, but said that St. John UCC provides a consistent witness to the StillSpeaking God and has been exemplary in its ministry to the community.
"Nothing about the nativity is trying to make a statement about a person's sexuality or gender identity," Schuenemeyer said. "It seems like the very thing Jesus came to struggle against is exactly what these churches did by refusing to participate in the Christmas celebration. They say St. John's goes against the teachings of Christ, but what teachings of Christ are they referring to? When we read the gospel, we see Jesus ministering to all sorts of folks who were often outcasts and rejected by their communities."
Haithcock said St. John UCC has had visits from supporters ever since the conflict arose. The more than 150 emails, tweets and comments on social media express pride in Haithcock and in St. John UCC. They express thanks for a welcoming place to worship, reassurance of the true meaning of Christmas, and appreciation for a joyful time at the nativity event – the kinds of feelings that make the holiday season such a special time of year.
"The vibe was very positive," Robertson Taylor said of the event. "I loved the way that Keith emphasized that the nativity was for everyone, that everyone was welcome regardless of their denomination, background and beliefs. I think that was the true message of Christ and is the true meaning of Christmas."