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How to keep Baby Jesus safe? Communities resort to elaborate security measures

Whatever the motive, stealing baby Jesus statues has joined a list of illicit holiday traditions, along with Christmas tree theft and porch pirating.

By: New York Times | Bethlehem |
December 24, 2018 9:47:34 am
How to keep Baby Jesus safe? Communities resort to elaborate security measures  A Nativity scene, without the statue of the baby Jesus, in St. Cloud, Minn., Dec. 20, 2018. The figurine was stolen in recent weeks, part of a national trend that is rattling Christian communities and prompting owners of holiday displays to bolster security with video surveillance, tethers and, in some places, GPS devices. (The New York Times)

(Written by Mitch Smith)

Away in a manger on Bethlehem’s public square, a woman approached a statue of the baby Jesus one dark, December night. Then she stole it.

The theft, from a Nativity scene outside City Hall, raised alarm in this eastern Pennsylvania city that shares a name with the real Jesus Christ’s birthplace.

When the missing baby Jesus was found, it had been damaged, and Bethlehem’s police chief had to glue its leg back on. Then the city took action, positioning a concealed security camera exclusively on baby Jesus and assigning police officers to monitor the footage. In the two years since, the statue has been left at peace, asleep on the hay as the camera, nicknamed the “Jesus cam” by some residents, rolls.

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“If anybody looks real close, they’ll see a crack in his leg,” said Lynn Cunningham, a leader of the local chamber of commerce.

How to keep Baby Jesus safe? Communities resort to elaborate security measures An empty crib in a Nativity display in St. Cloud, Minn., Dec. 20, 2018. (The New York Times)

Such manger larceny, in glaring violation of the Eighth Commandment, is also part of a sad national trend. This year, thieves have raided Nativity scenes in Tennessee, West Virginia, Minnesota and plenty of other places, and made off with Jesus figurines (and sometimes Mary and a donkey, too).

The episodes, which have rattled Christian communities, have become so common that the owners of holiday displays have bolstered security. On church lawns and in downtown parks, baby Jesus is back in his manger, but often with a security camera rolling and a tether securing him to the ground. Some places have gone so far as to equip figurines with GPS devices.

In West Bend, Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee, a baby Jesus figurine was stolen twice last year. After the first theft, the statue’s torso was found nearby, but the rest of it was missing. The faithful were outraged, and someone donated a new Jesus doll for the Nativity set, which had been displayed around town for decades.

A few days later, early on Christmas Eve, an alert police officer saw a woman “cradling something” on West Bend’s Main Street. It was the replacement baby Jesus. “I yelled ‘Police, stop,’” the officer wrote in his official report of the incident. Once confronted, the woman dropped the figurine and took off running.

The thefts took a toll in West Bend, a city of about 30,000 residents, where churches are central to public life and longtime residents recall admiring the old Nativity set as children.

“It brings tears to your eyes, and I’m not even that religious of a person,” said Rick Takacs, who offered a reward last year for information about the crime.

This week, a handsome new crèche donated by local business leaders was on display at Old Settlers Park. And West Bend was taking no chances. The new set came with its statue of baby Jesus firmly plastered to the manger. Workers bolted every sheep and rooster and wise man to the ground. And anytime a visitor peered in close, a motion-activated trail camera, like the ones used by deer hunters to track their prey, began recording.

“There’s no way someone can take it,” said Jennifer Smith, who works for the Downtown West Bend Association, which manages the display.

Theories about why baby Jesus figurines have become targets are as abundant as the array of security measures dreamed up to protect them. Some owners of Nativity scenes, long a centrepiece of Christmas celebrations, suggest an erosion of faith may be at the root. How else could someone walk away with the main character in a display honoring Jesus’ birth some 2,000 years ago in a Bethlehem stable? Others, though, say these are merely thoughtless teenage pranks.

Whatever the motive, stealing baby Jesus statues has joined a list of illicit holiday traditions, along with Christmas tree theft and porch pirating. (Though, in keeping with Jesus’ teachings, several Nativity-set owners said they would be eager to forgive the culprit.)

Repeat offenses are common. In Chisholm, Minnesota, a baby Jesus figurine made it through Christmas, but vanished from its manger in January before the display had been packed away. Police officers tracked footprints in the snow outside St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, but never found it.

Church leaders bought a new Nativity set and placed it outside this month on a snowmobile trailer. Only hours after the Rev. Anthony Craig hosted a blessing ceremony for the new set, the Virgin Mary statue went missing. With no leads, Craig added a replacement Mary to the display Wednesday morning. This time, the church pointed a security camera at the holy scene and locked the trailer — in case someone schemed to drive the whole thing away.

The crimes, Craig said, were a sign “that people aren’t living the gospel.”

“It kind of gives an urgency to our message,” he said.

Minnesota has seen a flurry of Nativity thefts in recent weeks. In St. Cloud, a Jesus statue was stolen from a historic set purchased by schoolchildren in the 1940s. And in Alexandria, the local newspaper reported, baby Jesus disappeared from a crèche outside a bed-and-breakfast.

“I’m really more concerned about the persons who have taken this and the state of their soul,” Craig said. “I’d really value just a conversation with them and to welcome them into our parish.”

Once in a while, there are happy endings. In Kingsport, Tennessee, a Jesus figurine went missing last weekend for a second consecutive year, despite being tethered to the ground.

“We’re looking at some tracking devices,” Ashlea Ramey of the local Jaycees club said after the disappearance. “What I’d hate to do is put plexiglass around it, but it may come to that.”

Soon thereafter, Jesus returned. A stronger tether was installed, and a tracking device remains under consideration, Ramey said, but mainly the Jaycees were relieved.

“It’s people’s faith,” she said of the statue. “It’s the embodiment of their faith.”

Still, some people searched for an up side to the vanishing statues.

Kurt Busiek, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist in Parkersburg, West Virginia, said he believes his security cameras probably caught the person who, on consecutive days, stole Jesus, a manger and a donkey from a grassy area outside his church. But he said he has not watched the footage or filed a police report.

In an age when church attendance is down nationally, Busiek said he has decided to embrace the situation. With help from his members, he restocked the Nativity scene with donated items.

“My thought is, ‘Hey, if they steal that one, we’ll keep putting it out,’” Busiek said in an interview. “I can’t think of a better way to get the message of Christmas out than for people to keep taking Jesus home.”

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