At first glance it’s a standard nativity scene. Sheep figurines are nestled in hay. There are statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and Joseph.
But above the tableau on the sides of the manger at St. Susanna in Dedham are 16 mass shootings that have occurred in the United States since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999.
Father Steve Josoma told Boston.com the idea for including the list in the creche came out of the parish’s Pax Christi group, a Catholic peace organization that operates at the international, national, and local levels.
He said, at a recent meeting, the group discussed what could be done around Christmas and wound up talking about mass shootings.
“It just kind of hit us all, about 12 of us here in the group in the parish, that when it comes to the mass shootings, it seems to be like Groundhog’s Day in that just kind of repeats itself, repeats itself,” Josoma said. “You have a shooting and there’s a period of time afterwards where we have to pray for the victims and support the victims, but we can’t talk about any change — that will come later. And then the later never seems to happen until the next one. This has happened since Columbine really. There hasn’t been much change implemented to break that cycle.”
With Christmas approaching, the group decided to draw attention to “the work that’s to be done” during the celebration of Jesus’s birth — the person, Josoma said, “who ushered in the different way to peace, the nonviolent way.”
The goal, he said, is to keep the conversation going about how to achieve peace and not settle for the “this new normal” of mass shootings.
The group selected 16 mass shootings to highlight, aiming to show the range of places that the tragedies have struck since Columbine. A movie theater, concert, nightclub, churches, and schools are included on the purple placards that also list the number of people killed in each shooting.
Josoma said part of the display is also to remember the victims and even to pray for the perpetrators.
“We talk a lot about mental health, but we don’t do a lot about it,” he said. “We just wanted people to stop and think and look at this person who brought us the gift of peace and realize that we haven’t experienced this yet. He gave us the way to peace more than the gift of peace, and we’re very reluctant to walk along that way. We tend to trust our might more than each other.”
Atop the manger is a banner that reads: “If only you knew the things that make for peace.”
Josoma said a previous draft he and members of the Pax Christi group came up with was writing “Pray for peace” and crossing out “pray” and replacing it with “work.”
“It kind of forces the question — what are the things that make for peace?” he said of the final message. “It’s deep down. It’s not, ‘We’ll wait for someone from the outside to come in and destroy our enemies and then we can live in peace.’ Because of course then we have and they don’t. What are the things that make for peace? What do we have to disarm? Do we have to disarm our hearts, our prejudices, our stereotypes? It raises those inside questions, I hope.”
The St. Susanna pastor said the response to the display, installed Thursday, has so far been mixed. There have been a handful of anonymous angry calls to the church saying they’re desecrating the Christmas scene, but he said they’ve also received messages saying the display captures the “true spirit of the season.”
“I think if anything, it’s the signs around the wall that people find upsetting,” Josoma said. “But that’s like the world around us. If we’re upset or angry at that, it’s like, ‘OK, what’s our response going to be to minimize, to help erase those, to help take those down?’ What steps do we have to take to do that? Just to hope that somebody does it someday isn’t going to work. To think, ‘I don’t have what it takes to do it’ and ‘I’m too small or too insignificant’ — that’s not going to work.”
Parishioners told Boston 25 News the display resonated with them.
Josoma said the display is a political statement and pointed to the church’s involvement in helping welcome a refugee family into the area as another way the church has tried to be “an alternate voice in dark times.”
“Some folks would say that a good guy with a gun could stop a bad guy with a gun,” he said of the epidemic of mass shootings. “Fort Hood is on our list. It doesn’t work that way. We have police stations that have experienced this. The solution isn’t to arm more, it’s to disarm and to trust each other.”