Sculpture Provokes Reflection on the Homeless
by George Wolfe
While walking through the Valparaiso University campus, I came across what appeared to be a man wrapped a dirty blanket, sleeping on a park bench. As I approached the bench, I began to suspect the image might be a sculpture. My insight was confirmed when I saw the wounds in the man’s feet. A plaque in front of the bench revealed the title of the artwork: “Homeless Jesus.”
This fall semester I have been teaching at Valparaiso University, filling in for a faculty member who is on sabbatical. This sculpture suddenly jolted me out of my academic “ivory tower” mindset to reflect on the growing plight of the homeless in the United States. I couldn’t help but compare this representation of Jesus to the iconic “Word of Life” mural by Millard Sheets on the University of Notre Dame campus, referred to by fighting Irish football fans as “Touchdown Jesus.” The Sheets mural, which depicts Jesus with his arms raised, received renewed attention when Notre Dame decided to renovate its football stadium to provide a better view of “Touchdown Jesus” for the fans seated in the stadium.
Immediately the thought ran through my head: “Valparaiso University; this Lutheran affiliated school really gets it.” And what an appropriate time to confront the issue of homelessness when this university, as well as protestant churches around the world, are commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. This bronze sculpture is by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor. It was first displayed in 2013 at Regis College at the University of Toronto. In addition to Valparaiso University, casts of “Homeless Jesus” have been installed at several locations in the U.S. including St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina, Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas and outside the Archdiocese of Chicago’s headquarters for Catholic Charities. It is also on display at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, and in Rome outside the Papal Office of Charities.
This artistic masterpiece, which has been met with some controversy, stands in stark contrast to the usual depictions of Jesus as the Christ of glory adorned as a person of royalty. It is a humbling and profoundly meaningful representation of the Christ that captures the heart of the gospel message as it relates to the marginalized members of American society. It further calls attention to the increasing role religious organizations must play as more and more people lose health care, struggle in low paying minimum-wage jobs, and enter the ranks of the working poor. As our government continues to turn a blind eye to the problems rooted in poverty, religious and secular community organizations need to provide support in the form of food pantries, educational assistance and occupational counseling so people can receive help as they struggle to climb out of poverty.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus at Ball State University and former Director and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He is also an ordained interfaith minister, chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox and Contemplative Spirituality.