Don’t Mess with the Baby Jesus

How the removal of a Christ child from outside a Walnut Creek retirement haven spawned a movement and split a community.

Two Christmases ago Patrick Kelly, a 68-year-old retired plumber, was driving toward the entrance of his gated community when he noticed something amiss: no baby Jesus.

Kelly lives in a Walnut Creek retirement community known as Rossmoor, a city-within-a-city populated by nine thousand people over the age of 55. In the last few years, he knew the nativity scene at the front gates had caused some debate among his neighbors. Some of the newer residents didn’t care for its religious symbolism, but still, to Kelly, it was a tradition. The waist-high fiberglass figurines had graced the entrance every holiday season for 35 years.

“Every year people would write a letter or two to the editor of the Rossmoor News and complain,” Kelly recalls, “saying things like, ‘It’s not appropriate to see that kind of thing at the front entrance.’ But that year, I guess enough letters got written, and then the board got involved and made a decision.”

The nine-member board of elected residents that governs Rossmoor had indeed made a decision, and it was one that Kelly and his Christian friends considered of the back-door variety. At the urging of a few peeved residents, board members had set up a policy committee to review the complaints. To smooth things over, the committee suggested the scene move from the gate’s entrance to the Stanley Dollar Clubhouse, a renovated mansion located in the middle of Rossmoor’s golf course. The board quickly approved the plan, and with little fanfare, the manger was moved.

“The problem was,” Kelly says, “you could hardly see it all, hidden way back there at Stanley Dollar. That made us unhappy, to have it relegated to a less visible spot. So we said, ‘The crèche has been in one spot for 35 years, what’s to say we can’t move it back?'”

So this summer, with much greater fanfare, Kelly asked the board to return Jesus to his rightful place.

Before Patrick Kelly co-founded a group called the Ecumenical Friendship Club in January, he’d never tried political activism. “I went to work every day,” he says. “I didn’t have time to get involved with these kinds of things.” Besides serving as vice president of the Rossmoor Men’s Golf Club, Kelly has dedicated much of his energy to the EFC and its mission to return the statuettes. The learning curve has been steep.

“This is an emotional issue for people around here because you’re mixing religion with politics,” he says, “and those two make bad bedfellows.”

Initially, the antinativity contingent was a faceless bunch. Just as Kelly had observed, a spate of letters appeared each holiday season in the Rossmoor News, but no one person came forward to lead a movement. Then, eight months ago, as word spread around Rossmoor that Kelly and his friend Lou Artiaco had started a lobby group, the crèche critics were provoked and returned in force. They drenched the News‘ editorial pages, arguing they’d be forced again to witness a religious celebration each time they entered their secular haven.

News editor Maureen O’Rourke has covered Rossmoor for 24 years and was unsurprised by the sudden uproar. Her mailbox was stuffed, and judging by the letters, the community was split in its opinion. “Some people think this is an issue of church and state, and feel the [crèche] shouldn’t be in such a prominent location,” the newswoman says. “They think if it’s at the entrance, it suggests to the people entering Rossmoor that we’re a Christian community, when, in fact, we’re not.”

Rossmoor is owned by a nonprofit corporation called the Golden Rain Foundation, whose nine-member board, known as the GRF Board, governs daily life inside the community, but with some caveats. While the board’s actions — like the original vote to move to the crèche to Stanley Dollar — stand firm, there’s also little to prevent corporation administrators from coming in and overturning any action. They own the place, after all. In this case, though, the owners have stayed out of the fray.

News letter-writers like Rita Simon, a 75-year-old artist originally from Chicago, have been published a few times since the controversy began. “We’re not a church or a synagogue,” argues Simon, who is Jewish. “We aren’t a religious place. We’re an ethnically diverse place with many religions. I think having a Christian symbol out front just sends the wrong message.”

Simon doesn’t want to see a menorah or any other symbol out front. Flowers would be nice. “It’s also a shabby little thing, the crèche,” she added. “It’s more than thirty years old. Have you seen it? It doesn’t look very good at all.”

In their proposal, Kelly and his group asked the board to allow “all religious symbols” to join the crèche at the entrance: menorahs, Buddhas — whatever. The group also suggested, somewhat unconvincingly, that the nativity scene represented the concept of goodwill on earth and not, as others have said, the birth of Jesus Christ.

In response to the Christians’ proposal, Jerry Priebat, leader of Rossmoor’s B’nai B’rith organization, suggested yet a third option. He offered that the crèche be moved into a more central location called the Court of Flags. And in its place at the front gates, a banner would be raised that read, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men.”

“That way,” Priebat says, “if you’re going to have holiday celebrations, people could get out of their cars and enjoy it, not just zoom right past it when you’re coming home.”

But to Kelly and Artiaco, the suggestion that the crèche shouldn’t return to its original location was just as offensive as its removal. As Artiaco put it, “As a Christian, to see the crèche moved from the front and put in the back, it was hurtful.”

At June’s Golden Rain Foundation board meeting, one hundred or so residents showed up. There were a few other hot items on the agenda, but none captured the audience’s attention like the crèche. When Rita Simon stood up and read a statement that offered, “No religious symbols, only nonsectarian decorations are appropriate for such a diverse community,” she was booed.

The same went for Kelly and Artiaco. Board president Nancy Hann had to ask the residents repeatedly to quiet down and remind them to “subdue our emotions and lean on our intellect.”

In the end, the board approved returning the nativity scene to front gates in a 6-2 vote, and adopted the all-symbols-welcome proposal. The board member who abstained liked Priebat’s idea to move the crèche to the Court of Flags. The two dissenters preferred the Dollar house location. The majority had a variety of reasons: The board never should have moved the scene in the first place; being a Christian is something to share with everyone, not just those who go looking for it; and residents drive past the crèche only for a moment, so what’s the big deal?

In the audience, Kelly was deeply pleased. Since then, he’s started a fund-raising drive for a new nativity set. His group is looking for something a little more high-end, and it surprised him to learn that quality crèches can run as high as $10,000.

“We’ll need a good one,” he said, “and one that won’t blow over like the old ones did. One that’s sturdy, and a little more weight-bearing.”

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