In Philadelphia, ‘Homeless Jesus’ sculpture embodies message of compassion

The Catholic Archdiocese in Philadelphia has erected a new public sculpture downtown, depicting Jesus as a homeless man sleeping on a bench.

The controversial sculpture now rests in front of a homeless shelter on Race Street.

The lifesize “Homeless Jesus” is one of 75 such sculptures installed in cities around the world, including Sydney and Washington, D.C. The edition installed in Philadelphia is the only one in the Pennsylvania.

It has not always been universally welcomed; for instance, a well-heeled resident of Davidson, N.C., called police believing that the bronze figure was a real homeless person in her neighborhood.

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That is unlikely to happen at 12th and Race streets in Philadelphia, where St. John’s Hospice — a Catholic homeless services agency — stands in the shadow of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. St. John’s provides shelter, support and meals to hundreds of men every week.

Archbishop Charles Chaput said Monday the sculpture challenges passers-by to reconsider the worth of homeless people.

“I think all of us are challenged to see Jesus in people who are different from us,” he said. “When you’re comfortable and you have a home, it may be difficult to see the presence of God in people who are in the opposite situation, who don’t have a home.”

The figure in “Homeless Jesus” is completely cloaked by a blanket, only identifiable by the nail wounds on the feet. It is meant to depict a Gospel passage from the Book of Matthew, describing the presence of Jesus in the least fortunate members of society: “As you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.”

The artist, Timothy Schmalz of Toronto, said his sculpture was inspired by a man lying on a bench, huddled under a blanket against the November cold. He made a series of sculptures depicting different parts of the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, including “When I Was Hungry,” “When I Was Naked,” “When I Was Sick.” “Homeless Jesus” leads the series.

“Hopefully this sculpture in front of the St.  John’s Hospice will be a reminder that Jesus — if he was walking around today — wouldn’t be with Trump, wouldn’t be with royalty, wouldn’t be with big business,” said Schmalz. “He would be right here.”

The Philadelphia “Homeless Jesus” was erected by the Philadelphia Archdiocese through a donation from the Beyer family.

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