At first glance, Davidson looks like one of those quaint, picturesque towns fit for a postcard. So a homeless man sleeping on a bench outside a church immediately stands out. Look a little closer, and you may realize it’s a sculpture of Jesus. Yes, a Homeless Jesus. The sculpture has sparked a lot of debate since it was installed a week ago. It’s also received national and even international attention.
Outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, an occasional car passes by on streets that feature homes, a small park, and retail shops. In the midst of this upscale suburban scene, a certain newcomer stands out. The life-sized figure rests under a blanket on a bench near the curb, with only its feet protruding. Something about those feetbegins to reveal the mystery.
This is Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz’s “Homeless Jesus.”
“Humbling, very humbling," says Davidson resident Mary Hardin. "I think it’s a beautiful piece and a message that is very much needed today. I think that sometimes faith gets too extravagant in its display and it’s just a reminder of the roots of the religion itself.”
The sculpture was a gift to St. Alban’s, in memory of the late Kate MacIntyre, a church member who helped start the town of Davidson’s public art program.
Another passerby who is visiting from New Jersey says the sculpture is impressive, but inappropriate for Davidson.
“I think the sculpture is very nice but would be more appropriate, in my mind, in a larger, more populated area rather than a small, intimate town setting,” she says.
The rector at St. Alban’s Episcopal, Father David Buck, agrees the statue is out of place. He says by design:
Father Buck: "The ‘Homeless Jesus’ represents the marginalized of society. It’s art, and I believe that art is intrinsically related to spirituality – secular or religious art . But this one is a ‘no-brainer’; it’s Jesus, and you can tell it’s Jesus by the holes in the feet," Buck says. "And we are an affluent community, to be honest. So it serves to remind us in our church that yes, we love our beautiful building, but ultimately our faith expresses itself as care for the needy."
Mark Rumsey: How do you hope that this work of art will speak to the community around St. Alban’s?
Father Buck: The idea behind the art, the donor’s idea, was a gift to the Davidson town, not just to our church. So we wanted it to be displayed where people would see it, and not in some private garden. And we are not trying at all to impose our values on anyone. We wanted it to be art for our beloved town of Davidson – accessible, and visible and interactive.
Rumsey: What reactions to this piece are you hearing?
Father Buck: It's mixed. It’s primarily favorable, but I understand that some people, understandably, are concerned – some neighbors here at St. Alban’s Square – and they have every right to their disagreement, because it jolts you when you see it. Especially at dusk, if you walk by you think there’s a homeless man out there. But that’s what good art does. It jolts us, it makes us think.
Rumsey: Is this a permanent installation where it now sits?
Father Buck: Absolutely, yes. It’s all one piece of sculpture. It’s bolted down, and we want it to be a permanent fixture on our campus and for the Davidson community. For fifty, a hundred years, someone taking a walk can sit down and even if the sculpture doesn’t jolt them because of its content, I suppose, as the song goes, they could ‘Have a Little Talk with Jesus’ – which I intend to do.
Other casts of the Homeless Jesus sculpture were considered for placement at St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York and another Roman Catholic cathedral in Toronto. Church “higher-ups” reportedly nixed those plans. But Pope Francis pronounced a blessing on the sculpture, at the Vatican.