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'Homeless Jesus' Statue Sparks Controversy in Upscale Community in North Carolina

( [email protected] ) Apr 14, 2014 02:28 PM EDT

Homeless Jesus
"Homelesss Jesus" sculpture in front of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson. (Photo: Mark Rumsey WFAE)

A statue that depicts Jesus as a vagabond or homeless person has sparked a surprising reaction from community of Davidson, N.C.

The controversial statue, title "Jesus the Homeless," depicts Christ as a beggar sleeping on a park bench, NPR reports. His face and body are covered with a blanket, revealing only his crucifixion-wounded hands and feet. The statue is a visual interpretation of Matthew 25:45, in which Jesus states, "As you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me."

The sculpture is placed on the property of St. Alban's Episcopal Church which is located at the center of an upscale lakeside community filled with well-kept homes and manicured lawns.

Residents of the town have responded with mixed feelings.

"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."

"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 commented.

While the bronze statue was originally purchased as a memorial for a parishioner of the church who reportedly "loved public art," the rector of the church believes the statue unexpectedly garnered just the kind of controversy the church needs.

"It gives authenticity to our church," 65 year old Reverend 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."

While some individuals believe "Jesus the Homeless" is an insulting depiction of the son of God and "demeaning to the community," Buck reports that the statue has touched even more parishioners than it has offended. It is now common, he says, to see people come, sit on the bench, rest their hand on the bronze feet and pray.

The pastor believes it is important for wealthy individuals to see Jesus portrayed as a vagabond instead of surrounded by finery, as is tradition in religious art.

"We believe that that's the kind of life Jesus had," Buck says. "He was, in essence, a homeless person."

Timothy Schmalz, the artist behind the statue and a devout Catholic, says he is not surprised by the community's reaction.

"That's essentially what the sculpture is there to do," he says. "It's meant to challenge people."

He fondly recalls presenting a miniature of the statue to Pope Francis.

"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," Schmalz says. "It was like, that's what he's doing throughout the whole world: Pope Francis is reaching out to the marginalized."

Pope Francis prays Homeless Jesus Statue
Pope Francis prays over mini "Homeless Jesus" Statue. (CTV/Timothy P. Schmalz) 

Other churches now plan to place homeless Jesus statue on their properties as well; the Catholic Charities of Chicago and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., state that they anticipate installing one soon.

"It's an exciting and unique way to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ," says one congregation member. "The statue is provocative enough that it catches people's attention and really drives home the reality that Jesus lowered himself to reach even the poorest of individuals."