My small town of Belen, New Mexico made the news this year, because of a permanent nativity scene that is on display in a city park. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to the mayor informing him that government sponsored religion is a constitutional violation. This didn’t sit well with our mayor. “My first reaction was seething anger,” Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova said.
In response, the mayor and other city leaders decided to respond with a live nativity play, Bethlehem style marketplace, and a children’s choir concert. Of course, the entire event takes place in the City Hall parking lot. I decided to attend, just to see what was going on. I regret that decision.
I was prepared to be angry or righteously indignant at the very least. After seeing the “Follow the Star to Bethlehem” event for myself, my only response is: meh. It was a pathetic attempt at a tantrum. I’d describe the marketplace as lackluster. When you first arrive you have to sign a guestbook that they called a census. They give you a bag of shekels, consisting of a few cardboard coins. You can use the shekels to buy hot chocolate, bread, and posole. A few stalls are selling virgin mary statues, baskets, and other random junk. People were dressed in robes and would greet you by saying “shalom” in their very worst Jewish accents.
I arrived early and there was a preacher on stage. I didn’t really pay attention, other than to notice how shaky and nervous he was. He kept talking about the war on Christmas and how we needed to put Christ back into Christmas. I guess no one told him that Christ had never been removed from Christmas. I mean, he’s right there in the word. He started talking about people taking away our right to celebrate. I wanted to ask him who, specifically, told him he wasn’t allowed to celebrate Christmas this year, but the poor guy probably would have passed out or puked or something.
It took me all of ten minutes to fully explore the area. I spent a few minutes looking at the animals that were spread out in a few stalls. They had the typical goats, donkeys and a camel. That’s cool. I like animals. It was odd that they also had three llamas and a zebra. As far as I know, zebras don’t hang around Bethlehem. Llamas are South American, so they had to travel a lot further than the wise men to greet the baby Jesus.
The nativity play started at 4pm, so I settled into a wooden bench to watch the spectacle. They set the stage up on the southwest end of the parking lot. That means the audience got an eye full of the setting sun throughout the entire play. I have no idea what the actors looked like because I was blinded by their poor planning. Good job, Belen.
The narrator’s mic cut in and out, so we could only hear every other sentence. I think I heard something about a virgin, an angel, and a donkey. They spent a good twenty minutes on the birth of John the Baptist. In between scenes the children’s choir would sing clichéd songs while the narrator did some sort of strange, hand-waving that might have been interpretative dance. I swear it took them 10 minutes to stuff a basketball in Mary’s robe and get on with the story. Mary was a major over-actor. She went on and on about God’s baby so long that I was sure she was just covering for the milk man.
Half an hour in, the crowd was talking amongst themselves, my nephew was bored, and the rest of my family was tired of staring into the sun. We left before Jesus showed up. Dude was dragging his feet.
I was told that they received a $50,000 donation for this thing. The production values were very, very poor for $50,000. I think someone pocketed some cash on this deal.
I couldn’t get angry about this religious display taking place at City Hall. It was too half-assed to be upset about. Really, Christians? Is this the best you can do? Next year I would like to see this moved to one of the area churches. There are two within a block of City Hall that could accommodate the event. There’s really no reason to involve the local government. Belen’s mayor thinks he struck a blow to the FFRF, according to the news this morning.
“One of the things about this organization that I don’t think that they fully understand is when they send a letter like that, all they’re doing is riling people up and getting them to express support more than they ever have before for things like this,” Cordova said.
Yes, when the FFRF sends a letter it gets the idiots riled up. But we don’t live in a country where you can break the law just because people think it’s okay this one time. The FFRF fights against encroachments on separation of church and state for good reason. If small infractions are allowed to stand, then we continue to lose ground little by little. Religion has no place in government. Belen cannot promote Christianity or Catholicism in an official capacity. Belen has citizens of all faiths and no faith. We deserve to be represented equally. I have no doubt that an actual lawsuit is forthcoming. Like so many obstinate mayors before you – you will lose.