The Detained Christ

An Advent Art Installation by Michiko Bown-Kai and Jane Sanden


Artist Statement


This year, East End United Regional Ministry is marking the season of Advent (the time leading up to Christmas) through the theme “What Can’t Wait.” Rather than passively waiting for Christmas to arrive, we are exploring how important it is to be able to know what deserves our attention and in what ways we are being called to act. Here at East End United, one of the things we feel can’t wait is justice for migrants and refugees.


In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the ways in which migrants and refugees face detainment, deportation, and separation from their families. The actions from North American governments has led to increased policing and incarceration of migrants and refugees, especially those who are racialized. At the US/Mexico border it has become common place to see children separated from parents and for refugee claimants to be held in detention centers in inhumane conditions. As a signatory to the Safe Third Party Agreement, Canada is complicit in the actions of the United States.


This art installation is our modern take on the creche tradition which depicts Jesus’ birth in a manger. We believe that we are all made in God’s image, each and everyone of us. Which is why, when we see images of children separated from parents in detention centers we also see the image of an incarcerated Christ. As Christians, our faith calls us to seek justice and to work to build a world where all life and all people are treated as sacred.


This image is a reminder that at the heart of a season that can become too quickly focused on festivities, celebrations, and gifts - there is a story of a baby’s birth - a brown baby, whose family would be fleeing persecution in the coming years, a descendent of migrants and refugees.


We have created this image because we hope that it will clearly demonstrate the injustice of criminalizing migrants. Our hope is that for those of you who have lived this reality, or are worried about family and friends living this reality, that this art installation is understood as a sign of solidarity. We see you, we are praying for you, and we are responding to the call to create a better world.

Click Images Below for Links to Media Coverage

Post-Christmas: Reflections and Conversation


As we enter into Epiphany and reflect on the lasting impact of the birth of Christ, it felt important to share with all of you the journey it has been creating and sharing The Detained Christ art installation. We believe that the beauty and importance of art is that it enables conversation and we have been very blessed that The Detained Christ became a launching point for conversation across the media and throughout our community.



Here are some Highlights


  • Worship: Advent 1 Service and Christmas Concert centering around the experiences and stories of refugees
  • Radio: an interview with Global Radio AM 640 was our first time hearing a wide audience from talk radio engage with the art piece. Later in the week, Michiko spoke on CBC radio show Here and Now
  • Print: The Toronto Star was the first to publish an article, followed by CBC, BlogTO, CTV, The Toronto Sun, and more
  • TV: CBC Toronto News joined us at Eastminster United Church for an interview that was featured on the evening news



Points of Connection


  • Through this process we learned how art can create opportunities for relationships to deepen. For example, members from The United Church of Canada and The Romero House who had just returned from a pilgrimage to the US/Mexico border, journeyed to The Detained Christ to share stories and reflections about refugee and migrant justice. The conversation was captured by a documentary filmmaker who helped produce a short video which was released only a few days later. This experience was also reflected upon in the Epiphany episode of the Living Presence podcast
  • We also received an email from a hymn-writer who had been so inspired by the news story of The Detained Christ that he had written new lyrics. With the help of our pastoral musician, these lyrics were set to a familiar tune and sung at our Christmas Eve services. 
  • Members of the East End Music team were recorded singing "Mary, Did You Know" beside the nativity



Feedback and Engagement


We are so grateful for the many people who took the time to reach out and write personal letters supporting our ministry and expressing gratitude for the message being shared through the art installation. We are also so grateful to all of you who engaged in posts through social media and showed support by sharing, liking and commenting.


We are aware that the Detained Christ art installation was not well-received by all people. The main views expressed through negative feedback was that the artwork was too political and disrespectful of the sacredness of Christianity. However, we do feel that our artist statement was effective in explaining our connection between faith and social justice, and the ways in which the story of Christmas in particular is connected to experiences of refugee and migrant justice in particular. 


One comment that we received asked about who was involved in the process of creating the art piece, especially given the difficult and disturbing nature of the image being of a racialized baby being detained in isolation. This was an important reminder that art has real impact on the world and we must create art critically reflecting on who is creating the image and how people’s lived experiences and identities impact the way art is created and received. In the future, we believe the process could be improved upon by ensuring that those whose lived experiences are being highlighted through art are involved in the process - whether it be as an artist, elder to the project, or another form of collaboration. We are grateful for those who provided honest and insightful feedback based on their own experiences of immigration, seeking asylum, and as Black/Indigenous/People of Colour. 


Thank you to all of you who make creative and artistic exploration possible at East End United and who offer such whole-hearted support to these forms of ministry. It is a gift to offer ministry to a community of faith who is passionate about the arts and justice. Many thanks to all of you who offered your talents and energy to support this project!


-Michiko & Jane