- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The Son of God lies huddled on a bench near one of the city’s busiest intersections. His body is minute, almost child-sized, and hidden inside a robe or rag. He appears to be shivering. He could be anyone, though the exposed feet, punctured like they were on the cross, are a dead giveaway — this is Jesus Christ beaten down and clinging on for life.

In other cities, “Homeless Jesus,” a bronze sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, has been called insulting, demeaning and creepy. Some say its $40,000 price tag is a waste of money and should be used instead for food and shelter. Others have suggested it could attract more homeless people to the area. Churches, deeming the art sacrilegious, have turned down offers to install the piece on their grounds.

Here in Indianapolis, where the piece was installed near Massachusetts Avenue and Alabama Street in early November, a woman mistook the sculpture for a real man and called the paramedics. A similar incident in North Carolina prompted criticisms that it made neighborhoods look destitute. But there’s also the argument “Homeless Jesus” forced the woman to notice the people around her — people down on their luck, like Ken Scott.

“For a second, she cared about someone,” says Mr. Scott, a 56-year-old Indianapolis native who, at least for now, lives in a makeshift tent 10 feet away from the bench. “Like, she stopped and called for help.”

“Homeless Jesus” was dedicated on Nov. 13 by Roberts Park United Methodist Church as part of the church’s efforts to raise awareness about homelessness in Indianapolis. The staff at Roberts Park UMC, which provides free meals to the homeless every Sunday afternoon, defend the work as a provocative and public way to ignite a much-needed debate.



“The important thing is to try and make visible and permanent what is often seen as invisible and transient,” said Pastor Andrew Holmes, who led the initiative to have the sculpture installed. “There are other ways that you could help than simply making some PB&J sandwiches and giving it to somebody.”

Supporters say depicting Jesus — who traveled far to care for the sick and poor — as downtrodden reminds community leaders about the messages he preached.

Jesus related to folks like that. Look at the parable of the Good Samaritan,” says Richard Smith, business administrator for Roberts Park UMC. “Often, you see a homeless person, you walk on the other side of the street. Let’s ignore that. Maybe the piece is a little controversial, but it’s intended to invite discussion and raise awareness.”

Although the Indianapolis sculpture was paid for through private donations and is installed on church property, “Homeless Jesus” stands out — and begs discussion — the same way any piece of public art does.

Its location, neighbors point out, is telling. The bench sits in the heart of Massachusetts Avenue, a neighborhood of both Starbucks yuppies and those, like Mr. Scott, who ask them for change and leftovers. Jesus‘ crestfallen figure lies, physically and metaphorically, between Indianapolis‘ high-end apartments and the city’s homeless resource centers, like the Wheeler Mission Ministries, whose shelters often overflow during winter’s coldest months.

“By relaying the figure of Jesus, this sculpture exemplifies the fact that anybody, at any given time, given the right or wrong circumstances, can experience homelessness,” says Steve Kerr, chief development officer at Wheeler Mission Ministries.

Up to 10,000 people could be homeless throughout the year in Indianapolis, according to the Indiana University Center for Health Policy. One study estimated there are 1,600 Indianapolis Public School students who are homeless.

The city has a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” which offers homeless people the right “to move freely in public” and equal treatment by city agencies, among other protections.

The statue, they say, is a step in the right direction. “It makes us feel safer sleeping at night,” says Ricky Damrell, 55, who wears a thick, straggly beard and is known in the homeless community as “Spanky.” Mr. Damrell and Mr. Scott say they’ve seen their fair share of trouble in life. Seeing Jesus with his punctured feet and huddled figure is, for them, a sign of solidarity.

Mr. Damrell hopes the debate sparked by “Homeless Jesus” could lead to change. Don Wise, 55, who also is homeless, agrees.

“Build some shelters. There’s so many abandoned buildings. Convert them over,” he says. “Any number of things can be done.” Though Mr. Scott responds, “I’m not holding my breath.”

Mr. Schmalz says “Homeless Jesus” has sparked widespread discussions and sometimes new initiatives around the world. Art, he says, is the perfect answer to what is commonly seen as an “invisible problem.” He says his piece is the first high-profile religious art since the birth of Christ that has portrayed Jesus as something other than sanctimonious.

His response to the critics?

“The greatest fan of this work, I think, is Jesus himself. He constantly says you have to see him in the broken, in the marginalized,” he says.

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Source: The Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/1lqA1AG

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