"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 25, 2023

The Inflatable Jesus - He Really Has Risen

After Halloween’s displays of inflatable witches and ghouls; Thanksgiving’s giant turkeys and John Smith and Pocahontas dioramas, and Christmas’ oversized Santas, sleighs, mangers, and reindeer, it was no surprise that a giant, plastic, inflatable Jesus on the cross appeared on the lawn of 114 Prospect Street at Eastertime.

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The figure was two stories high with arms as long as the limbs of a live oak.  Even in a slight breeze the figure swayed and dipped, and in a wind its wire tethers screeched and moaned. Jesus’ brow was dripping with painted blood, his eyes, illuminated from within, looked agonizingly upwards.  His wounds were wet with oozing watercolor, his nailed hands oversized, knotty, and grotesquely misshapen. 

On the roof was an animated, plastic, inflated figure of God Almighty, surrounded by sunbeams, his arms outstretched and extended down to the beseeching figure of his son.  Bach’s Easter Oratorio was heard from speakers mounted on trees, secreted in the rhododendrons, and attached to the porch swing.

For all intents and purposes the Richards were an ordinary family, and although their lawn decorations bordered on the politically incorrect – a white jockey, realistic-looking dwarves bowing to the fairest, blondest, more exaggeratedly white Snow White ever imagined by Disney, Christian Crusade figures on Arab stallions charging scattering Saracens – they were taken as honest expressions of faith.  A bit crass, the neighbors snickered, but within the bounds of free speech if not the social propriety for this upscale, politically aware enclave of Washington.

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The Richards’ home became a minor tourist attraction, all bells and whistles, tinsel, and action figures animated by a religious faith all but absent in the community.  The little choo-choo trains that wound in and out of the shrubbery were cute, the animated scary cats and skeletons that shook and wobbled and scared little children were all in good fun, and one of the Richards – a large family of five children – was always out on the lawn greeting passersby.

Families from the suburban working class neighborhoods of Gaithersburg and Rockville shoehorned into garden apartments or condos just off the Pike and with no lawns of their own were frequent visitors to the Richards’ home.  No display was too exaggerated or too showy.  In fact, the more lights, the bigger the inflated figures, the more lively the animation, and the louder the music the better. 

These families, many of whom were immigrants from countries where displays of faith were common, saw nothing garish or tacky about the Richards’ displays.  In San Salvador, Huancayo, and Tegucigalpa saints days, Mardi Gras, Christmas, and Easter were all celebrated with parades –with festooned and bedecked bishops and prelates, oversized crosses and statues, live manger scenes with real people, goats, and sheep, loud,  bright colors, and festive music.

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These new arrivals, surrounded by Protestant minimalism and barely-noticeable devotion, were overjoyed to find a place they could relate to, something emotional, personal, and moving.  The Richards’s front lawn at just about any time of year was it.

As much as the people of Valley Park tolerated the Richards’ displays, the residents across the avenue in Barrow Hill, one of Washington’s oldest, wealthiest, and most socially conservative neighborhoods, were outraged.  Not only did such garish shows offend their prim, tailored, temperate tastes, but the crowds from the unpleasant suburbs with too many children, too many unintelligible languages, and far too many cheap clothes, toys, and accessories, loaded into twenty-year old Corollas, and shortcutting across their neighborhoods to the Richards’ home were about as unwelcome and unwanted as the homeless on Thomas Circle.

Worst of all, knowing that this pretentious, ugly, crass display was only a few blocks from their leafy enclave and separated only by the avenue, was just as bad as seeing it in person.  Seeing it once was enough to infect and pollute the images of their carefully preserved community.  In fact, it wasn’t the leafy sycamores, the flourishing azaleas, or the light, tumbling sound of the creek that ran through their neighborhood that they thought of, but the flapping, tooting, moaning effigies on the Richards’ lawn.

The erection of the huge Eastertime inflatable Jesus on the Cross was a game-changer.  The Salvadorans and Mexicans from Silver Spring and Rockville now came in even larger numbers and instead of drive-by looks, double parked on Prospect Street, got out of their cars, and prayed and blessed themselves in front of the Richards’ house. The corner of Prospect and Fairchild became Washington’s Lourdes or Fatima. No suspension of disbelief at these online Walmart-purchased images was required.  The new Americans were quite easily able to overlook the plastic, the generators, the guywires and tethers, and props and fall to their knees.

At the same time the residents of Barrow Hill had finally reached the end of their rope, and they claimed loudly and persistently to their Councilmembers.  The lawyers among them looked through DC zoning statutes to see under which legislation or hidden codicil the Richards could be forced to take down the Inflatable Jesus. How could dismantling a religious icon under public law still be Constitutional and respect the Freedom of Religion not to mention the Freedom of Speech?

The political progressives of the other side of Prospect Street, residents of a neighborhood best known for its Black Lives Matter, Biden/Harris, and Hate Has No Home Here rainbow signs and deeply committed to inclusivity, diversity, and social change, were conflicted about the whole affair.  While they instinctively sided against the Barrow Hill white elitists and with the immigrant poor who were expressing their newfound democratic rights, they were secretly appalled at the tastelessness of the Richards’ lawn display. 

These progressives, all with advanced degrees, tenured positions at Washington’s universities, or senior posts at liberal advocacy groups were supposed to take the underclass – the underclass as a whole – without question as the core of American society.  It was these new arrivals with their mariachis, rice and beans, huipils, and happy faith who were to be championed just as the white, elitist, racist wealthy plutocrats of Barrow Hill were to be deposed.

Image result for images rainbow signs hate has no home here

Yet, one look at the 40’ high, swaying, tipping and tilting, garishly bleeding, grotesquely agonized  plastic inflated Jesus and the distorted, twisted image of Michelangelo's God on the roof was enough to force them to reassess the limits of ‘inclusivity’.  None of these white, liberal, progressives had grown up with such absurd displays.  Whether on the East Coast or West, they grew up in an environment of social conservatism – simple clothes, simple homes, simple cars, and simple worship.  The Inflatable Jesus was their line in the sand.

It was agreed to first talk with the Richards, to reason with them, and to appeal to wider community values; but when that didn’t work and the family insisted on its displays, the whole kit-and-caboodle of knights, saints, God, and the Inflatable Jesus, the lawyers got involved; but that simply opened a maze of complex legalisms.  Was there a height limit for religious displays? And would the community accept a twenty-foot Inflatable Jesus instead of forty?  And what about the smarmy dioramas and animated action figures? Could they be toned down?

The Chairwoman of the City Council, a black woman from Southeast who had made her bones under Mayor-for-Life and convicted criminal Marion Barry, who knew a political opportunity when she saw it, and who felt she could use the issue of the Inflatable Jesus to blunt if not neuter lawyerly white interests in the city and pave the way for more generous public investment in the inner city, voted in favor of the Richards and the caravans of immigrants who were coming from her constituency as well as from the Maryland suburbs.  The Inflatable Jesus was also her line in the sand.

So the Richards were snubbed by the residents of Valley Park, hated by the white elitists of Barrow Hill, and paid lip service by the DC government and council.  None of this bothered them, however, since they were never out to prove any point except the Good News of Jesus Christ

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