Painting Marys, Welcoming Refugees by Angela Yarber

angelaThis holiday season, in the midst of our ever-repeating mass shootings and debates about the welcoming of Syrian refugees, I have seen a meme, a pithy quote, a bumper sticker time and time again amidst my fellow liberals:

“If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about Middle Eastern people seeking refuge being turned away by the heartless.”

Similarly, many have posted pictures of nativity scenes with a tongue-in-cheek quip, “I’m so glad people are placing these lawn ornaments in their yards to indicate that they welcome refugees into their homes.”

Myriad articles have been published encouraging Christians to remember our calling to welcome the refugee, and as an ordained clergywoman, I affirm these thoughts. I believe it is our responsibility, as Christians and particularly as feminist Christians, to welcome the marginalized, the oppressed, the refugee. I am also a strong believer in the separation of church and state, a distinctive imperative both to my Baptist tradition and to my home country of the United States. So, in many ways, it doesn’t really matter politically that my faith tradition teaches me to welcome the refugee because my country is not a Christian nation, but it does matter that the primary symbol of my country—the Statue of Liberty—proclaims boldly and without apology: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It seems that much of the essence of my faith tradition and my country embolden me to welcome the outcast, the marginalized, the poor, the refugee. Even if they’re from Syria. Especially if they’re from Syria.

To me, this seems obvious, but too many in our country, and within my faith tradition, it is taboo, absurd, antithetical to all that the country or the Christian should stand for. While I think there is more nuancing necessary than what is embossed in the bumper sticker, meme, or pithy quote, I also think the essence rings true. Did Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus fit the exact definition one uses to describe refugees today? Probably not. Is the situation precisely the same? No. But I do think that there is something to be said about an unwed teenage mother finding refuge in an unlikely place in the face of wonder, misunderstanding, and chaos. I think there is something this unwed teenage mother, huddled with her infant in a dank and smelly manger (or so the story goes), can teach us about welcoming those who are different.

As that wildly unbelievable nativity story continues, we are also taught that “wise men” travel from “the East,” following an intrepid star to greet this newborn and his unwed teenage mother. These men from “the East” were also foreigners, different from any person Mary and Joseph had likely ever met. They probably looked differently, spoke differently, and certainly believed differently than Mary and Joseph’s friends, family, and community. And yet this young couple welcomed them, the strange foreigners at the door with odd gifts and unique beliefs and inconceivable claims of following the stars through foreign land. To me, both the harboring of the holy family—this unwed teenage mother, a bewildered father, and this newborn god—and the welcoming of the “wise men” are stories of what it means to look in the eyes of difference with an attitude of embrace and wonder rather than with an attitude of fear and exclusion. Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the “wise men” teach us what it means to welcome and be welcomed.

For many feminists, this notion of welcome is a central tenant of Marian Spirituality, or a spirituality that focuses on Mary as a source of inspiration and empowerment. During the season of Advent and Christmas, I’m always reminded of her. This year in particular, as debates about whether or not persons and families fleeing war, violence, and persecution should be welcome on American soil, Mary offers a glimpse of hospitable hope. Culturally manifested from left to right as Mary, Guadalupe, La Negrita, Virgin de la Caridad, and Our Lady of Regla (their stories coming soon), these myriad Marys teach us to welcome to refugee, to cradle difference in an embrace, and to offer love, grace, and charity to the oppressed and marginalized.

Mary 1 Mary 2 Mary 3 Mary 4 Mary 5
These Marys are a vital part of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist and I would claim that all Holy Women Icons embolden us to welcome the stranger, to provide safe haven for the refugee, and to show love to those who are excluded. If we dare to be holy women ourselves, perhaps we should do the same.

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B, and Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit:


8 thoughts on “Painting Marys, Welcoming Refugees by Angela Yarber”

  1. Got that right.

    Although there might be a few security risks among those who would enter as refugees, I am really not afraid of them.

    I do fear, however, the proposals of several political candidates who would abridge the liberty and civil rights of those whose religion differs from their own.

    Next Thursday, WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual) will hold its monthly ritual via telephone and in person in its Silver Spring, MD office. The topic this month is “Re-Imaging Mary: A Woman Today.”

    For those interested, here is a link:


  2. Very interesting. I’m not sure I can generalize that all mothers are holy (mine sure wasn’t, and neither was I when my son was very young), but there’s an aura of miracle around being able to give birth.

    From Abraham, the Buddha, and Mohammad forward, it seems that our great prophets and teachers spent part of their lives being homeless. Today, alas, there don’t seem to be any stables in which a young family can find refuge and be visited by wise men (or kings or astrologers) from the East. Some stories say that Joseph’s little family was driven into temporary exile before they found a home. Eliza Doolittle sings, “Wouldn’t it be loverly” if she had a warm, cozy home. Our young mothers today need homes. So do the refugees.

    I have long thought that Lady Liberty is the goddess of the U.S. Unfortunately, The Donald and others like him seem to want to pull her down and drown her. This is not a Christian country; the freedom of religion statement was put into the First Amendment specifically to welcome practitioners of other religions. People keep forgetting that. Let us welcome mothers and their families and find them better homes than stables (or garages?). Let us obey Lady Liberty.


    1. I didn’t intend to generalize that all mothers are holy, but rather that these myriad manifestations of Mary are holy and that they, along with all my Holy Women Icons (some mothers, some not), embolden us to welcome the refugee. I’m agreed that not all mothers are holy and it would be an essentializing claim to purport that mother-ness makes holiness.
      I’ve been marinating on Lady Liberty as a Holy Woman Icon, a goddess of the just values we have forgotten in the US; perhaps she will be a future project!


      1. Do you know a book titled Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna by China Galland (1990)? It’s a very good book about the author’s journey (pilgrimage) to meet manifestations of Mary. I learned a lot from this book when I first read it.

        I think a painting you’d do of Lady Liberty would be lovely. You could take into consideration images from the French Revolution. We all know, of course, that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France intended for the centenary of the American Revolution, but it arrived a bit late.


  3. A wonderful and beautiful post. Thank you! And how appropriate that it appears on December 12, the day honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, who is an icon of hope to so many. Please please please make Lady Liberty a new project as a Holy Woman Icon. She is so needed now!


  4. There is an enlightening article about Mary in the latest “National Geographic”. Additionally, your article above made me wonder, since I live in Texas and Abbott is one of “those” governors, what would occur if I volunteered to host a Syrian family. They probably would forbid it. Sad state of affairs now.


  5. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    Last week I read the article in “National Geographic” about Mary, this shows up today in my email, saw “Amahl and the Night Visitors” a week ago, and Christmas comes soon. The Mary article was inspiring because it shows several places in the world where Christians and Muslims pray together to honor Mary. We need so much peace and goodwill now!!!


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