“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you …”
The rattle of a diesel-engine drowned out the Gospel of Matthew on a frosty Saturday afternoon — on Ste-Catherine St., even the words of Jesus Christ himself must compete with the noisy metropolis.
Diane Ellison ignored the passing garbage truck and soldiered on, finishing the Bible verse as her fellow parishioners prepared to unveil a bronze statue. When they pulled the curtain off, it revealed a life-size likeness of Christ, swaddled in a blanket, sleeping on a park bench.
Homeless Jesus — a sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz — lays outside Montreal’s St. James United Church, but there are about 60 identical pieces across the world. Saturday’s unveiling came ahead of World Day of the Poor, a Catholic day of observance that was launched under Pope Francis in 2017.
And while the statue was erected outside of St. James United Church, Reverend Arlen John Bonnar says it’s meant to cut across religious divisions and to the heart of the word of Christ.
“We always have this image of the meek and milk Jesus, but he was a radical,” Bonnar said. “He preached among the sinners, the outcasts, the lepers and the prostitutes. He came up against the powers of his day, the political power of Rome and the religious power of the Temple.
“He aligned himself with the vulnerable. That’s what the mission of the church is, to be there for those who are suffering. Regardless of who they are, where they come from or what their faith is.”
Schmalz’s inspiration for the piece came after seeing a homeless man on Toronto’s University Ave. In past interviews, he’s said the man bore a striking resemblance to Jesus and that — too often in artist’s depiction of Christ — he is the image of physical perfection.
Schmalz was meant to be at the Montreal unveiling, but missed it because of complications with his flight from Toronto. Though his Homeless Jesus statue was first rejected by churches in Toronto and New York City, it’s become a worldwide phenomenon. The Roman copy of his work has been blessed by Pope Francis and, on Sunday, versions of Schmalz’s sculpture were scheduled to be unveiled in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.
Bonnar said the work is reflective of a sea change in the United Church. Beyond the work his parish does with refugee claimants, Bonnar meets regularly with leaders from the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim communities.
And while attendance is thinning at Catholic and Protestant churches across the city, many — like St. Michael’s Mission or the Open Door — are active in fighting for the city’s 3,000 homeless men, women and children.
“Twenty years ago, the statue would have been inside the church, we would have had a big religious ceremony, the Anglican bishop would have been here, the cardinals and all that,” Bonnar said. “Here we are outside in the cold, garbage trucks driving by, people walking along, we’re in the square, we’re connected to the city.”
To Bonnar’s point, ahead of Saturday’s ceremony, one of the refugee claimants he works with made about a gallon of lentil soup to serve anyone in need of respite from the oppressive cold. Nadia Rezkallah, a practising Muslim, says she feels the church has helped her integrate into Canadian society.
“For me, even if I work with Christians or Jewish people, the value of a person is who they are as a human,” said Rezkallah, who came to Canada from Algeria two years ago. “It doesn’t matter what your religion is, they’ve helped me and I want to give back, to contribute, to be a part of this larger community.”
For most of the two-dozen people gathered for the unveiling, it was the first time they laid eyes on Homeless Jesus. The piece is, indeed, striking: Only Christ’s punctured feet are clearly visible on the bench, but a close look into his blanket reveals Jesus’ beard and eyes.
“I was dumbfounded when I saw it,” said David Simons, a member of the United Church. “It’s a beautiful depiction, it tells a story that we see every day. It reminds us that there are people out there that are alone, that are destitute and it is up to us not to just walk past them.
“(Jesus) is willing to put himself in this position. Once you have done that to the littlest of me you have done that to me. He is willing to put himself in that position and I hope, when people see it, it sensitizes them to the homeless living among us.”