Calgary church's inclusive, cross-cultural nativity scene turns heads

A church in southwest Calgary is offering a different take on the nativity scene, including an Indigenous wise man who looks like the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an astronaut and

United church's scene includes a wise man meant to look like Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde

The nativity scene outside the Red Deer Lake United Church in southwest Calgary includes magi that look like real people: the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an astronaut and a musician. (Red Deer Lake United Church )

A church in southwest Calgary is offering a different take on the nativity scene this year with an inclusive, cross-cultural display that includes an Indigenous wise man.

Rev. Nick Coates at Red Deer Lake United Church says he was expecting congregants and others to push back, but everyone has loved the updated version of Christ's birth.

One of the wise men is meant to look like Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde of Treaty 4 territory, who offers a symbol of warmth and teaching with his gift of a blanket.

Because some interpretations of the magi indicated they were astronomers and thinkers, artist and church member Larry Stilwell says, another magi is Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar, who holds out the "Milky Way" constellation to symbolize the gift of knowledge.

The taller magi with dreadlocks is the American musician Michael Franti, who brings the gift of music.

The shepherds are shown as poor teenagers. 

Stilwell says he values inclusivity, but wasn't seeing that reflected in traditional nativity scenes.

"Since the 14th century, European master painters have formed our visual opinion of what the nativity looks like, thereby shaping what it can mean," he said. "So I chose to step away from tradition.

"By contemporizing some of the traditional imagery and by decolonizing some of the characters, the hope is to create a scene that sparks curiosity, engagement and wonder, and causes people to ... enter into this story in a new way," Coates added.

"I hope this nativity can cause people to stop, engage and wonder what does Christmas really mean."

Coates says all of the characters are brown-skinned, as they would have been at the original nativity.

Stilwell ​said he also dressed Joseph in a typical labourers outfit and tried to portray both he and Mary as looking young and overwhelmed. 

"I chose to step away from tradition and develop a nativity installation that comments on homelessness by giving the stable a temporary, intentionally unsubstantial feel, a physical reflection of the emotional state of a presumably teen mother in an occupied land."

With files from CBC News

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