In the spring of 2018, Johan Van Parys, the director of liturgy and sacred arts at Minneapolis’ Basilica of St. Mary, saw an ambulance pull up on Hennepin Avenue in front of his church.
He watched medics hop out and surround a thin figure draped in a blanket on a nearby bench. He was not alarmed, nor was he concerned for the person on the bench.
The figure is not a person at all, but a statue. The “Homeless Jesus” sculpture has been stationed outside the basilica since 2017. It depicts a man lying on a bench with his face totally shrouded, huddling to keep warm. The only way you can tell it’s Jesus at all is by the twin piercings in its feet.
That’s the point of the statue, Van Parys says. The artist, Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, wanted to make a “visual representation” of Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
“It’s striking and a little bit shocking; It makes people think,” Van Parys says. “The fact that it’s very realistic pushes us to face the reality of the problem we still face.”
Some people love the statue, he says. He’s seen people tuck the hooded Jesus in warm blankets, or leave flowers for him, or sit next to him on the bench and lay a hand on his wounded feet. Some, on the other hand, say it makes them a little uncomfortable, and call it a waste of money that could have been used to help real homeless people.
The church does help real homeless people, Van Parys says, but it also sets aside money with the intent to “change hearts and minds.” If the statue makes you feel a certain way, he says, it could be that “you, too, are called to make a difference.”
The statue’s message tends to cut even a little deeper now, with Minneapolis and St. Paul facing a housing crisis and some of the most visible reminders of mass homelessness in recent memory. Now more than ever, Van Parys says, people need to remember that as we head into these brutally cold weeks, there will be people outside. Real people made of flesh, not metal, desperate for warmth. Some of them, he says, will “likely die.”
The most important opinions on the statue came from the area’s homeless population, Van Parys says. He made sure to hold a meeting with them before the figure was installed.
“Their reaction was really quite positive,” he says. Some were “really honored” to see Jesus depicted as a person like them—a person on the margins, without a place to stay for the night.