By Alan Bean
Was Jesus homeless? Yes, he was. In Matthew 8 we read: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
And then there is that startling passage in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant preacher, walking the dusty roads of Palestine with an odd assortment of men and women. He never worried where his next meal was coming from, partly because his friends provided food and drink for the journey, and partly because he learned how to live with hunger.
So it is entirely appropriate that St. Alban’s Episcopal Church should depict Jesus as a homeless man wrapped in a blanket in a piece of public art. And it is also appropriate that a woman driving by should pick up her cell phone and call the police. Jesus didn’t go to the cross for identifying with the poor . . . but it was certainly part of the mix. Had he identified with the wealthy, he would have avoided the cross and his message would have been the mirror image of what we read in the Gospels.
In his book, Doing Justice, Congregations and Community Organizing, Dennis Jacobsen talks about what happens when white and black professionals abandon inner city communities by incorporating separate municipalities. When that happens, tax money flows to affluent neighborhoods (like the real estate surrounding St. Alban’s Episcopal Church) while inner city communities wither and die. It doesn’t have to be that way, Jacobsen says:
David Rusk argues for a policy of regionalization of planning, taxing, and spending. He points to Indianapolis as a positive example of regionalization. when now Senator Richard Lugar was mayor of Indianapolis, he finessed a state legislative action that made the boundaries of Indianapolis and its surrounding county congruent, creating a ‘uni-government’. The effects have been dramatic.
The Christian gospel doesn’t damn the wealthy (although it comes damn close); the gospel is a call to repentance and a call to take responsibility for the men and women who sleep on park benches and undergo similar forms of humiliation.
Jacobsen ends his chapter on “Metropolitan organizing” with this telling comment:
Metropolitan organizing is not about class warfare. In fact the opposite is the case. Metropolitan organizing offers a chance to end the warfare against the poor and to heal the divisions of class and race that separate this sick society. Metropolitan organizing provides a table wide enough to offer a place for all, including the rich, whose compelling self-interest may be their desire to restore their humanity, to live out their faith, to obey their Lord, to honor the church catholic.
If that’s what the good people at St. Alban’s have in mind their Christ-on-a-park-bench statue rises above trendy sentimentality. The image of the homeless Christ “who has nowhere to lay his head” has been growing in influence even as the popularity of standard-issue Christianity plummets. We are in the midst of a revolution.
A new religious statue in the town of Davidson, N.C., is unlike anything you might see in church.
The statue depicts Jesus as a vagrant sleeping on a park bench. St. Alban’s Episcopal Church installed the homeless Jesus statue on its property in the middle of an upscale neighborhood filled with well-kept townhomes.
Jesus is huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the crucifixion wounds on his uncovered feet give him away.
The reaction was immediate. Some loved it; some didn’t.
“One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by,” says David Boraks, editor of DavidsonNews.net. “She thought it was an actual homeless person.”
That’s right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.
“Another neighbor, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote us a letter to the editor saying it creeps him out,” Boraks added.
Some neighbors feel that it’s an insulting depiction of the son of God, and that what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighborhood.
The bronze statue was purchased for $22,000 as a memorial for a parishioner, Kate McIntyre, who loved public art. The rector of this liberal, inclusive church is the Rev. David Buck, a 65-year-old Baptist-turned-Episcopalian who seems not at all averse to the controversy, the double takes and the discussion the statue has provoked.
“It gives authenticity to our church,” he says. “This is a relatively affluent church, to be honest, and we need to be reminded ourselves that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized of society.”
The sculpture is intended as a visual translation of the passage in the Book of Matthew, in which Jesus tells his disciples, “As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.” Moreover, Buck says, it’s a good Bible lesson for those used to seeing Jesus depicted in traditional religious art as the Christ of glory, enthroned in finery.
“We believe that that’s the kind of life Jesus had,” Buck says. “He was, in essence, a homeless person.”
This lakeside college town north of Charlotte has the first Jesus the Homeless statue on display in the United States. Catholic Charities of Chicago plans to install its statue when the weather warms up. The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is said to be interested in one, too.
The creator is a Canadian sculptor and devout Catholic named Timothy Schmalz. From his studio in Ontario, Schmalz says he understands that his Jesus the Homeless is provocative.
“That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do,” he says. “It’s meant to challenge people.”
He says he offered the first casts to St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Both declined.
A spokesman at St. Michael’s says appreciation of the statue “was not unanimous,” and the church was being restored, so a new work of art was out of the question. That statue found a home in front of the Jesuit School of Theology at the University of Toronto.
A spokesperson at St. Patrick’s in New York says they liked the homeless Jesus, but their cathedral is also being renovated and they had to turn it down.
The most high-profile installation of the bronze Jesus on a park bench will be on the Via della Conciliazione, the avenue leading to St. Peter’s Basilica — if the city of Rome approves it. Schmalz traveled to the Vatican last November to present a miniature to the pope himself.
“He walked over to the sculpture, and it was just chilling because he touched the knee of theJesus the Homeless sculpture, and closed his eyes and prayed,” Schmalz says. “It was like, that’s what he’s doing throughout the whole world: Pope Francis is reaching out to the marginalized.”
Back at St. Alban’s in Davidson, the rector reports that the Jesus the Homeless statue has earned more followers than detractors. It is now common, he says, to see people come, sit on the bench, rest their hand on the bronze feet and pray.