The only way to identify this particular Jesus is by his feet.
There are statues, figurines, paintings, and other artistic representations of Jesus in all sorts of establishments that aren’t related to church, whether it be a privately-owned restaurant or someone’s house. Seeing a portrait of Jesus is not too much of a surprise, but seeing him in the way he is represented in Davidson, North Carolina, has many citizens speechless.
Sculptor Timothy P. Shmalz is behind the design of the statue, which rests on a park bench and was purchased by St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. The reason that the statue is so controversial is because Jesus, the alleged lord and savior, is represented as a homeless man.
Titled Homeless Jesus, but also called Jesus the Homeless, Shmalz has said that his piece is meant to be provocative and that there are several installations around the world, though the Davidson statue is the only permanent, full-size version. Jesus is depicted as a homeless man lying on a bench, huddled in a blanket with his face obscured; the only giveaway that this is Jesus are the crucifixion marks on his feet.
Reception of the Jesus statue has been extremely mixed, as some viewers and churchgoers loved the installation while others condemned it. The statue cost $22,000 and was purchased as a memorial for parishioner Kate McIntyre, who loved public art, by Reverend David Buck, a 65-year-old Baptist-turned-Episcopalian that doesn’t shy away from controversy.
“It gives authenticity to our church,” Buck said. “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.”
Shmalz, who is a devout Catholic, has said that the work is 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.” Buck explained that it’s necessary for people with faith to see Jesus in this light rather than always seeing him represented as the center of glory in artwork.
“We believe that that’s the kind of life Jesus had. He was, in essence, a homeless person,” Buck told NPR.
One viewer actually called the police about the statue because she thought it was really a homeless person loitering and sleeping on a bench, according to David Boraks, the editor of DavidsonNews.net. Another person wrote a letter to him stating that he believed the statue was creepy and should not be a permanent installation.
“That’s essentially what the sculpture is there to do,” Shmalz said upon hearing that there has been controversy in Davidson and around the world. “It’s meant to challenge people.”
In contrast, when a smaller cast was presented to Pope Francis in Vatican City, the pope touched the knee of the statue, closed his eyes, and prayed. Shmalz described the moment as almost omnipotent, as though Pope Francis was advocating for all marginalized people with this one gesture.
Shmalz continues to offer casts of the statue to popular places around the world so that his work can act as a discussion piece and as a reminder that, if Jesus were alive today rather than 2000 years ago, he would be among the minority and would need help. If humans can’t help fellow humans now, what makes them think that they would not have been among the people turning Jesus and his disciples away?