KANSAS CITY — Just in time for Christmas, hundreds of people in the Kansas City area have committed to dress like Jesus in the days leading to the holiday, in what they say is an answer to a widening secularization of the season.
Members of Praise Chapel Christian Fellowship began showing up at their jobs, shopping malls and restaurants last week dressed in flowing robes and crowns of thorns as a hard-to miss reminder of the holiday’s religious roots.
Now the idea is generating interest in other states after a video of Jesus-clad shoppers was posted on YouTube.
“We are just showing people on the outside what we are on the inside,” said pastor Kelly Lohrke, whose members attend services in Kansas City, Kan., and nearby Lee’s Summit.
In formulating the plan, the 41-year-old tapped into his own frustration over the removal of religious symbols such as crosses and nativity scenes from public displays.
Several groups have pushed the issue this year, with the American Humanist Association plastering ads on Washington, D.C., buses that proclaim, “Why believe in god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”
That story captured Lohrke’s interest, as did another about the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s decision to place a placard that declared “religion is but a myth and superstition” near a Christmas nativity scene at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
For Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, the removal of religious symbols is appropriate. Her group’s attorney has sent 20 letters this year and filed one lawsuit seeking to have nativity scenes removed from public spots.
“There is such a profound misunderstanding about the separation of church and state,” Gaylor said. “And there’s an unwillingness to honor it in the month of December. It’s like the constitution is put on hold in December.”
Lohrke, whose church is part of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based Praise Chapel Fellowship of Churches and Ministers International, isn’t convinced the founding fathers intended for religion to disappear from the public realm entirely at the holidays.
“It’s just absurd,” he said, “that Jesus is taken out.”
Still, he wasn’t sure how his congregation would respond when he told them during Sunday services on Dec. 14 of his plan to dress like Jesus. The members are evangelical, but he told them, “We aren’t going to preach.” If asked about their attire, he said, the congregation should feel free to share their faith and explain that they are celebrating Christmas or Jesus’ birthday.
Afterward, he asked that church members come forward if they planned to participate. About 400 did.
“We’ve gotten nothing but positives,” he said, adding he personally has dressed like Jesus at a Starbucks, a Target store and a post office.
He said one Jesus-clad church member was strolling through a shopping mall when a store Santa Claus called out and asked to have their picture taken together. The Santa grumbled that he isn’t even allowed to wish the children who climb onto his lap a “Merry Christmas.”
After video was posted on YouTube, Lohrke received several calls. And he said four or five churches in the Los Angeles and Portland, Ore., areas had planned to urge their members to dress like Jesus, too.
Lohrke is already starting to think ahead after the idea gained so much traction in just a few days.
“Next year,” he said, “we are going to make this a big deal.”
Later he winced in pain. “Don’t laugh,” he said. “I just poked my forehead with my crown of thorns.”