Written by Gayle Starling-Melvin
December 1, 2001
'Tis the season. Christmas. Time to reflect on José, Maura and the birth of their child, Hope, born in an empty lot on North Glenwood Avenue in Springfield, Ill.
Who? José and Maura? That's not the Christmas story.
Yet through the eyes of the Rev. William Sterrett, pastor of Amicable Congregational UCC in Tiverton, R.I., the story is very much Christmas. It's his way of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
Amicable's youth group had been portraying the characters of the nativity scene on the church lawn just before the Christmas Eve service. After watching the freezing youth, Sterrett decided to take the church's characterization of the nativity scene in a new direction. His goal was to serialize a modern day Christmas story in a local newspaper and illustrate it with large wooden sculptures on the church lawn.
Most Christians, says Sterrett, think of Jesus as being born in a warm, cozy barn, amidst clean, docile animals and sweet, perfumed hay. "I view the whole scene differently," he says. In his eyes, the setting was a cold and bleak plot of land, reeking with manure, a temporary home for a frightened and anxious couple.
Sterrett chose the names and occupations of his modern-day nativity characters carefully: José, an unemployed, migrant farm worker from Mexico; Maura, a white, pregnant runaway from affluent East Windsor, Conn.; and Hope, their newborn child. Then he commissioned Michael Higgins, a local chain saw artist, to join in his inspiration.
The project debuted at Amicable in December 1999.
Working mostly at night under a droplight, Higgins sliced through huge chunks of wood, molding Sterrettt's creations. His efforts attracted not only Amicable's members but also motorists, joggers and anyone who happened by.
For three weeks before Christmas, as Higgins helped the characters emerge from the huge logs, Tiverton's local paper, the Sakonnet Times, ran Sterrett's fictional accounts of their story. The tales were so gripping, strangers would approach Higgins in the local coffee shop, their eyes swelled with tears of appreciation and a new-found respect for Jesus' birth.
Last Christmas, Sterrett and Higgins added three new characters to the tale: Gabe, an African-American angel; David, a shepherd, a Native American employed at Walgreens, who provided the newborn with a shopping cart for a manger and disposable diapers; and Anna, a shepherd, a battered, white nurse's aide who supplied juice, milk, potato chips, a candy bar and an orange to the impoverished family on North Glenwood.
This year's characters are still a surprise. Rhode Islanders will have to wait to see what will emerge on Amicable's lawn and in the Sakonnet Times.
Sterrett once commented that he would "rather put up a metal grate, like the ones in New York City, and have a homeless couple with a baby stand there trying to keep warm" than a typical nativity setting. Now his vision has come to fruition. What started out as a simple desire for change has become a story of unparalleled literary and visual beauty: Sterrettt composed the narrative; Higgins gave them life.
To see photographs of Higgins' sculptures and read Sterrett's nativity stories, go to www.amicable.org/stories.html.