Walk past this church in a well-to-do North Carolina town and you’ll see a man lying on a bench, huddled under blanket for warmth. Look closer and you’ll see his feet, the only part of the man that’s visible, are marked with wounds from the Crucifixion.
The sculpture outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, N.C.—portraying Jesus as a homeless vagrant—has drawn both praise and ire in this Holy Week for Christians and the Jewish Passover for its controversial message about charity. Its creator, a Canadian sculptor and devout Christian named Timothy Schmalz, says the statue was inspired by a passage in the Book of Matthew: “As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.”
“I’m visually translating one of the most powerful aspects of the Gospels,” Schmalz told CTV News. “It’s a visual sermon.”
The $22,000 bronze sculpture was bought and donated in memory of a St. Alban’s parishioner. The church’s rector, the Rev. David Buck, told NPR, “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. We believe that that’s the kind of life Jesus had. … He was, in essence, a homeless person.”
The lifelike piece prompted one passerby to call the police, thinking it was an actual homeless person, said David Boraks, editor of DavidsonNews.net.
Some residents would like to see it go. “My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench,” resident Jerry Dawson wrote. “It is also about walking by this sculpture at night and passing within inches of the grim reaper. These are the impressions that this sculpture gives. I have stepped over actual homeless people sleeping on a sidewalk in New York City and not been as creeped out as I am walking past this sculpture.”
A local rabbi chimed in supporting the statue. “You might think it odd that a rabbi feels inclined to weigh in. However, since Jesus was a ‘member of the tribe’ (Jewish), I hope you will indulge me,” wrote Michael Shields, rabbi of Temple Kol Tikvah in Davidson. “The ‘Homeless Jesus’ sculpture and the festival of Passover are opportunities to choose—to affirm our obligation and commitment to others who are still shackled by injustice.”
The sculpture found a home in North Carolina after being homeless itself for more than a year; churches in Toronto and New York expressed interest in the statue, only to later reject the artwork. Pope Francis, however, gave his seal of approval when he blessed a miniature of the statue in Rome in November.
Read more about charitable giving on NerdWallet:
Photo courtesy of Timothy Schmalz.