A parishioner left a bequest earmarked for art, and the other members decided on which art, and that’s how “Jesus the Homeless” came to repose on a park bench on the grounds of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, N.C. The congregation, partly composed of a nearby college’s faculty, students, and staff, is described as liberal, gay-friendly, and embracing of the arts and sciences.
The piece is interactive, in the sense that when a contemplative viewer occupies the space invitingly left empty on the bench, that is the best vantage point for noticing the scars of brutal wounds in the figure’s feet, clinching the identification.
The bronze sculpture is the work of Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz. As we see from the picture on this page, taken last November at the Vatican, Pope Francis very much liked a smaller version of it. The possibility exists that another iteration of the full-size sculpture will take up permanent residence outside St. Peter’s Basilica. Another copy of the statue can be seen on the grounds of the University of Toronto’s Jesuit School of Theology, and Catholic Charities of Chicago will soon have one, and maybe the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., as well.
At St. Alban’s, the pushback originated with a local woman who called the police, believing that the statue was an actual slumbering homeless person, and probably a threat to the neighborhood’s safety. Various other objections have been raised on both aesthetic and theological grounds. Some people feel that the sculpture is not only bad for the town’s image, but an insult to Jesus. Others find it odd that Christians prefer their deity hanging from a cross (the execution method for common criminals) rather than sleeping on a bench. But Rev. Anne Vouga, an Episcopal priest, wrote:
At first I was surprised to notice that the picture of the homeless Jesus huddled in the sunshine did more to bring out a Good Friday spirit of contrition in me than did all of the pain and horrors of the Cross…. But a homeless man huddled on a park bench — that is a sight that I recognize only too well in my world. It easily conjures up connotations overflowing with sin and suffering: oppression, injustice, addiction, loneliness and despair.
“Jesus the Homeless” is supported by a Bible verse, Matthew 25:40, whose broadest interpretation is that when someone helps another person with a kind deed, it’s just the same as doing a good turn for Jesus himself. TheMuslimTimes.org published a commentary on the controversy, and backed it up with a passage about poverty and charity from Al Quran.
RightWingNews.com, on the other hand, chastized St. Alban’s for wasting $22,000. But the donor specified that the money should be spent on art, and it is the custom, in civilized societies, to honor such dictates — aside from being illegal not to. Also, it’s not really bizarre or outlandish for a church to have a piece of religious statuary on its premises.
The financial objection is a bit disingenuous, considering that plenty of churches in America contain millions of dollars worth of accoutrements. An ecclesiastical supply catalogue reveals that somebody out there is willing and able to pay $28,000 for a Romanesque Tabernacle (an ornate safe made of precious metal, for storing the components of Holy Communion) — and that’s only one item in the extensive furnishings of a church. Plus, unlike Homeless Jesus, it’s locked up inside the building, where hardly anyone can enjoy the sight of it.
Shalom Community Center in Bloomington, Ind., is a nondenominational yet religiously inspired day shelter and resource center for the poor, hungry, and homeless. Its director, Rev. Forrest Gilmore says:
The brilliant subtlety of it all lets us know the homeless man that we have seen so many times, ignored, stepped over, crossed the street to avoid or perhaps put a coin in his cup, bought him a cup of coffee, or sat down to have a conversation with, that that man could actually be Jesus.
The rector of St. Alban’s, Rev. Doctor David E. Buck, says, “You love it, you hate it, it makes you think.”
As House the Homeless has discussed before, Richard R. Troxell conceived and began work on Home Coming, a sculpture with multiple figures. The soldier represents the military vets who make up a third of the homeless population. Accompanying him is his daughter, who at age 9 represents the average age of a person experiencing homelessness today. Just arriving on the scene is an elderly African-American woman, who stands in for the people of color who make up 65% of the homeless population. She also represents the disintegration of American families of all ethnicities, but the welcome that the other two extend to her signals the impromptu creation of a different kind of family.
Through a marvelous combination of circumstances, Timothy P. Schmalz has agreed to complete the work including the final casting, and it will eventually stand in Austin, Texas. In a YouTube video, Schmalz describes his process.
In a letter confirming his participation, Schmalz wrote:
The homeless project that Richard is planning will tell a much needed story at a glance to all that pass by. So many times public sculpture is erected to glorify only the certain top part of society, whether it is a famous politician, wartime hero or successful business man. The homeless sculpture proposed will take the least in our society and honor them with a public sculpture. This sculpture will show that ALL are valued in our democratic society and that ALL should be respected.
Source: “Homeless Jesus Statue Makes Some Uncomfortable, but Not Pope Francis,” ArtNet.com, 04/16/14
Source: “Good Friday Reflection on the ‘Homeless Jesus,’ ” Blogspot.com, 04/16/14
Source: “’Homeless Jesus’ Statue Gets New North Carolina Home, But Controversy Follows,” TheMuslimTimes.org, March 2014
Source: “Church Wastes $22K On Metal ‘Homeless Jesus’ Statue Instead of Homeless,” RightWingNews.com, 04/14/2014
Source: “Homeless Jesus,” ShalomCommunityCenter.org, April 2014
Source: “‘Homeless Jesus’ provokes debate on what it means to be Christian,” ReligionNews.com, 03/12/14
Image by Timothy P. Schmalz