Homeless Jesus, also known as Jesus the Homeless, is a bronze sculpture by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz that depicts Jesus as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench. The original sculpture was installed at Regis College, University of Toronto, Toronto in early 2013. Other casts have since been installed at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina, outside the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s headquarters in the River North neighborhood of Chicago, at Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, in front of Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Catholic Church in downtown Detroit, and at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana. The first sculpture outside of North America has been installed on the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Description and History
Homeless Jesus was designed by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor and “devout” Catholic. It depicts Jesus as a homeless person, sleeping on a park bench. His face and hands are obscured, hidden under a blanket, but crucifixion wounds on his feet reveal his identity. The statues has been described as a “visual translation” of the Gospel of Matthew passage in which Jesus tells his disciples, “as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me”. Schmalz intended for the bronze sculpture to be provocative, admitting, “That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do. It’s meant to challenge people.” He offered the first casts to St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but both churches declined. One spokesperson for St. Michael’s said the church declined because appreciation “was not unanimous” and it was undergoing restoration. The cast intended for St. Michael’s was installed at Regis College, the Jesuit School of Theology at the University of Toronto. Similarly, a spokesperson for St. Patrick’s complimented the work but declined purchasing the cast due to ongoing renovations.
In 2013, the first cast was installed in the United States, at the St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina. It was purchased for $22,000 and displayed as a memorial to parishioner Kate McIntyre, who had an affinity for public art. According to the Rev. David Buck, rector of St. Alban’s, “It gives authenticity to our church. 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”. Buck welcomed discussion about the sculpture and considers it a “Bible lesson for those used to seeing Jesus depicted in traditional religious art as the Christ of glory, enthroned in finery.” Furthermore, he said in an interview with NPR, “We believe that that’s the kind of life Jesus had. He was, in essence, a homeless person.”
For the downtown Detroit location, Rev. Gary Wright, S.J. of the Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church has said Homeless Jesus honors and may comfort the homeless people whom the church serves. An anonymous alumnus of the Jesuit- and Sisters of Mercy-sponsored University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, which adjoins Saints Peter and Paul, donated funds for the statue at the church, placing it just across East Jefferson Avenue from Detroit’s iconic Renaissance Center towers.
According to NPR, a cast will be installed on the Via della Conziliazione, the street leading to St. Peter’s Basilica, if approved by the City of Rome. Schmalz visited the Pope in Vatican City in November 2013 to present a miniature version of his statue. He recalled about the Pope’s reaction, “He walked over to the sculpture, and it was just chilling because he touched the knee of the Jesus the Homeless sculpture, and closed his eyes and prayed. It was like, that’s what he’s doing throughout the whole world: Pope Francis is reaching out to the marginalized.” Catholic Charities of Chicago and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. have both had casts installed outside of their offices. Pope Francis is expected to visit the sculpture installed along G Street in Chinatown, Washington, D.C., during his 2015 visit to the United States.
Reception of the statue has been mixed. According to NPR, “The reaction [to the cast in Davidson] was immediate. Some loved it; some didn’t.” Some Davidson residents felt it was an “insulting depiction” of Jesus that “demeaned” the neighborhood. One Davidson resident called police the first time she saw it, mistaking the statue for a real homeless person. Another neighbor wrote a letter, saying it “[creeped] him out”. However, according to Buck, residents are often seen sitting on the bench alongside the statue, resting their hands on Jesus and praying.