The image is appropriate for Christmas: Joseph leads a donkey on which Mary rides, a star shining above them on their journey to Bethlehem. But the poster's message, in Spanish and aimed at illegal immigrants, strikes many as inappropriate: "This is how Jesus was born ... Joseph and Mary participated in the census ... Don't be afraid."
Worshippers at the Rev. Angel Nunez's church in East Baltimore received their first glimpses of the poster during services this week, enthusiastically greeting the image that connects the birth of Jesus Christ and the 2010 census, the pastor says.
Nunez, senior pastor at the Bilingual Christian Church in the 6000 block of Erdman Ave., says his mostly minority congregation welcomed the poster without reservation, adding that any push to get undocumented Latinos to cooperate with next spring's census - with millions of dollars at stake - should be viewed in a positive light.
But other Latino churches and civic organizations have called the poster blasphemous, and are just as angry at the timing as they are the message.
About 35 churches in the Baltimore region and another 100 churches in the Washington area received the posters, according to Nunez. He said all of the posters arrived in time to be showcased inside sanctuaries during Christmas week.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Joseph went to Bethlehem to register his family but could not find room at an inn, and Jesus was born instead in a manger. The poster plays off of those Bible verses, imploring readers to participate in the census, as Jesus' family did.
Serving also as the senior vice president of the National Hispanic Leadership Christianity Council, Nunez was a vital part in the creation of the image and aggressively defends the poster. His organization helped pay for its distribution.
"We have not received a single complaint here or at our national offices," Nunez said.
Other Latino organizations have declared the poster to be sacrilegious, falling between those groups that are supporting the census and others that are calling for a boycott until immigration laws are reformed.
The Washington-based National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which says it represents 20,000 churches in 34 states, is one of the leading critics of the poster, and is also encouraging its undocumented members to not take part in the census.
Leaders of the organization have demeaned the poster on the group's Web site, with its chairman, the Rev. Miguel Rivera, calling it anti-Christian propaganda and a "despicable act that also violates the concept of separation of church and state."
Rivera said his group represents the storefront churches in urban communities, including about a dozen in Baltimore.
"To do this during this time, of all times ... they wouldn't dare do this same thing during Islam's Ramadan," said Rivera, who added that about 38 percent of Latino church members under his organization are undocumented immigrants. "But they do so in the name of Jesus. It's cheap."
Just how effective such a poster will be remains to be seen, but officials from the National Association of Latino Elected Officials are confident it will help combat any anti-census sentiment. NALEO is leading the effort to distribute thousands of the posters nationwide.
The Rev. Gabriel Salguero is working with NALEO and said he believes the vast majority of Latino faith-based organizations are supporting the census. Salguero, pastor of the Lamb's Church in New York City and director of the Hispanic Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary, said the image is being used by a minority of Latino religious leaders as ammunition to boycott the census.
Salguero adds that the Gospel narrative "says they went to Bethlehem to be counted. We're being respectful of the gospel and telling people not to fear."
"Some people are trying to use the poster to get their agenda to boycott the census out," he added. "But we want people to not be afraid to participate whether they're documented or not. The [Latino] churches will get behind the census and will provide safe places without fear of being deported."
Census figures are used to help allocate $400 billion a year in federal dollars and determine the number of seats each state gets in Congress.
In 2007, Maryland received more than $5.8 billion in federal funds for programs that rely on Census Bureau data. State officials said federal funding for Maryland residents is estimated at about $1,000 per person, per year, and an undercount could cost the state millions.
Rivera's organization last spring began telling undocumented immigrants to remain in the shadows for the census count, stating that members of Congress need to move forward with reform that will no longer deport those here illegally.
The Census Bureau is asking that everyone, regardless of citizen status, fill out the 10-question form which should begin arriving at households by March.
Latinos are now the nation's largest minority at 47 million, and several estimates have another 8 million undocumented immigrants of Latino background.
"A full count is critical for the continued economic and political progress of the Latino community," Nunez said. "An undercount will do serious damage to our families and our neighborhoods and undermine efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform."