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Town bands together to help the homeless after a homeless man burns down their Nativity scene

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Firefighters work to put out the blaze that destroyed Elmira's historic Nativity scene. Members of the community have joined together to rebuild the scene before Christmas. (Image source: WETM-TV)

Police say a 24-year-old intentionally set fire to the historic Nativity scene in Elmira, New York, completely destroying the town's holiday attraction.

But what the arsonist failed to do was destroy Elmira residents' Christmas spirit.

Police arrested Daniel J. Peterson-Green, a homeless man, and charged him with second-degree criminal mischief, according to a press release from the Elmira Police Department.

Peterson-Green intentionally lit a receipt on fire, which in turn spread to a bale of straw in the Nativity early Tuesday morning, police said.

The Nativity, a Christmas tradition in Wisner Park for decades, was completely destroyed in the blaze.

So members of the community have joined together to work to rebuild the Nativity scene, which is set to be unveiled at a special celebration Dec 16. At the rededication, the town will also raise money to continue to expand on the Nativity for next year.

"It’s quite amazing that the fire happened just this past Tuesday, and here we are, almost a week later, and we’re going to have a new one on display," Elmira Mayor Daniel Mandell told TheBlaze in an interview Friday morning.

Local business and community leader Michael Wayne, vice president of Chemung Canal Trust Co., told the Elmira Star-Gazette that the rebuilding of the Nativity will be "much more of a community effort" as schools, local organizations and churches will be able to participate in its reconstruction.

"That brings a whole lot of people into the process, as opposed to just going out and buying one this afternoon and constructing it tonight," Wayne said.

But aside from the community's focus on the structure, it will also collect donations to help with Elmira's homeless.

"What we’re trying to do is try to make awareness of people that are homeless and that are in need and take this tragic event and turn it into something really positive," Mandell said. "This will be one way we can do that, by getting clothing and coats so that we can hand them out to people who will really need it with the upcoming winter weather."

Wayne told WETM-TV that the irony of the suspect's living situation certainly wasn't lost on him.

"When you think about the story of the Nativity, it's all about Mary and Joseph going and not having a place to stay," Wayne said. "Unfortunately, that same situation occurred to a young man in our community last night. We're certainly not condoning what happened, but it gives us a point of irony to think about that this continues today."

And it's not just city officials who are pushing to donate in the wake of the blaze. On various social media sites, residents have asked how to get involved and donate — both to reconstruct the beloved Nativity scene and help the homeless.

Facebook user Chyllene Vanhouten-Agan wrote:

We have an amazing community and together we are capable of great things. The Nativity was absolutely beautiful but as you said, thank God no one was hurt. If the news has it correct perhaps this is a chance to bring attention to our homeless population in Elmira. I know many people do not even realize that they exist here. They do and are in need at a critical level. Let us take this time to reach out to agencies who can direct us in the best ways we can help. I am hoping that our Nativity will return and would be happy to contribute in any way possible! Our park won't be the same without our holy family this Christmas but hopefully some good can come from this.

And Suzie Wilmot Rundell, whose Facebook page says she works for the city of Elmira, said:

I am so proud to be a part of Elmira. We will come together and rebuild. Also a special prayer to all the homeless along with everyone with their own person struggles this holiday season.

In response to the news stories that a homeless man intentionally set fire to the Nativity, many Elmira residents responded on social media with messages of hope, not condemnation.

"Maybe the love that someone could show him would change things in his life," one Facebook user wrote. "Not justifying his actions but obviously he has some pain inside."

Others posted links of local charities that help the homeless.

Mandell encouraged those not in the area who would like to donate or help out to contact Elmira Downtown Development Executive Director Jennifer Herrick-McGonigal, who has really spearheaded much of the rebuilding efforts, for more information on how to do so.

But as for the people in Elmira who have already donated so much time, money and winter clothing, Mandell isn't surprised.

"That just speaks to what our community is all about," he told TheBlaze. "We brush aside the negativity and come together in unity and help one another. This is our community, and this is who we are."

In the meantime, as the community works to rebuild the nativity scene and show love to the one who destroyed it, a small display sits where the town's favorite once stood, placed there by an anonymous person.

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