When Bay Village police officers arrived at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church after a resident reported what seemed to be a person who was experiencing homelessness and sleeping on bench, they were in for a big surprise.
Instead of encountering a real person, they were met with a statue depicting a homeless Jesus lying on a park bench. According to the church’s pastor Alex Martin, the cops were called only 20 minutes after the statue was placed on the church’s grounds.
The sculpture was designed by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz and was originally installed at Regis College of the University of Toronto in 2013. According to Schmalz, the sculpture is intended to be provocative. And provocative it has been since its conception. In a 2014 interview with NPR, he said, “That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do. It’s meant to challenge people.”
A copy of the sculpture in Davidson, North Carolina sparked the same reaction from a wealthy neighborhood in 2014. As NPR’s original article puts it, “somebody called the cops on Jesus.” There are over 100 copies of Schmalz’s ‘Homeless Jesus’ on display worldwide, with most of them on church grounds.
Bob Martin, professor of visual arts at John Brown University, shared his thoughts on the conversation surrounding the sculpture. “It does what all good art, especially public art, should do—educate, communicate and especially spark meaningful conversation, which can hopefully lead to real action,” he said.
In the same NPR interview, Schmalz said the statue is “a visual translation” of Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” As the statue garners attention from the media, it also sparks a conversation among Christians: would we extend our hand to Jesus who was, in essence, a person experiencing homelessness?
“The public response to this art installation is a telling illustration of the shame that poverty holds in our society,” Meaghan Lacelle, sophomore art and illustration major, said. “It’s important to consider why exactly someone would see this image as blasphemous. We don’t normally see images of Christ huddled on a park bench because we equate that lowly stature with having done something to deserve little more than a park bench.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic creating a health and economic crisis in the United States, it is too soon to determine its impact on people experiencing homelessness. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 15 out of every 10,000 people in the U.S. were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2019. Minority communities like Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are most likely to face housing insecurity when compared to all other racial and ethnic groups.
“Homelessness is a problem with many root causes, but as Christians, we should be at the front lines of trying to help all those in need,” Martin said. “That may mean helping provide shelter and food, or helping someone get the medical or mental health care they need to get out of a hard situation.”
Homelessness, a state of living that does not discriminate against region, family status, gender, race or ethnicity, is an issue that the nation, and followers of Jesus, especially, should address it. The pandemic has only exposed the depth of the nation’s homelessness crisis, and Schmalz’s social commentary in the form of a statue re-sparks the necessary conversation to help those who experience homelessness.
“Good, empathetic art is meant to make you question the way you see things and expose you to narratives that you might otherwise censor for your own comfort,” Lacelle said. “I think this sculpture is an excellent example of art that makes you question your own bias and privilege.”
“Taking the theme of James to heart, that our faith and our works should go seamlessly hand-in-hand, we could find ways to engage with those in need beyond simply giving handouts,” Martin said. “It seems to me that loving our neighbor means being willing to sit with that neighbor, to provide spiritual nourishment to that neighbor by simply making ourselves available in sometimes the simplest of ways.”
Photo courtesy of The Community of Sant’egid