‘We’re not just talking’

Homeless Jesus statue expected to provoke thought and action

Hyde Park UMC leaders pray for the ministry anticipated by the installation of 'Homeless Jesus' at the church's downtown Tampa campus. Left to right, Revs. Justin LaRosa and Vicki Walker, lay leader Cheryl Parrish and Rev. Magrey deVega lead a dedication service. Photos by B.C. Manion.

TAMPA -– About 150 people attended an Ash Wednesday dedication of “Homeless Jesus,” a life-size, bronze sculpture of Jesus sleeping on a park bench outside The Portico, Hyde Park UMC’s downtown campus.

“This sculpture invites each of us, brothers and sisters, to see God in the places we wouldn’t expect to see God – both in the community and in the margins of our own lives,” said Rev. Justin LaRosa, who leads The Portico ministry at 1001 N. Florida Ave.

Close-up of sculpted feet with telltale nail holes on Homeless Jesus statue

The telltale holes of crucifixion are the only clue that the bronze sculpture of a homeless person in The Portico breezeway depicts Jesus.

Many in the crowd lingered for the imposition of ashes in the traditional service that followed to launch the Lenten season. Worshipers spilled out of The Portico chapel, resulting in at least one Hyde Park pastor administering ashes and blessings outside.

The $40,000 replica of an original sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz depicts Jesus sleeping under a blanket, his face and torso covered and only bare feet showing. The distinctive nail marks in the feet are the only clue to the figure’s identity.

The Portico’s display will be the only one in Tampa, per the artist’s directive. Replicas of the sculpture have provoked controversy in some U.S. cities where they were installed.

The piece of public art fits with The Portico’s aim “to gather people together to have important conversation, to have connection with God and one another and to participate in community change,” LaRosa told those gathered.

“We want this sculpture to remind us that we cannot forget the most vulnerable among us.” 

Cheryl Parrish, lay leader at The Portico, read from Matthew 25:31-40.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Whatever you did for one of us, one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Rev. Magrey deVega, senior pastor at Hyde Park UMC, said, “These words of Jesus are among the most haunting in the entire gospel because they illuminate an inherent problem of the human condition that affects all of us.

Some of the crowd gathered for dedication of Homeless Jesus statue
About 150 people participated in the dedication service for the "Homeless Jesus" statue installed outside The Portico in downtown Tampa.

“We favor those who are like ourselves and we avoid those who are different from us. … But those who are different from us in social status or ethnic heritage or religion or sexuality or age or gender or any of a wide range of labels and categories – these are people that we would rather ignore.”

“And that is why this Homeless Jesus statue matters,” deVega reflected later in his remarks.

"It matters because public art has a way of bringing to our consciousness that which we would rather ignore.”

Pam Avery, a member of the committee that worked to bring the statue to The Portico, said it provides a way “to begin our journey of using art to connect with our community.

“The purpose of what we’re doing here is to bring people in so we can address social issues,” she said. “It [the statue] invokes conversation.”

James Massa, also at the ceremony, said he came because he thinks the statue is “an excellent representation of the love of Christ and what we should be doing.”

The statue received an overwhelmingly positive response at The Portico, but there was at least one detractor.

James Worley, who leads an effort called Homeless Lives Matter, was critical of Schmalz’s approach to selling one replica of the sculpture per city.

“It’s Coca-Cola marketing,” he said.

Rev. Vicki Walker, right, administers ashes on the forehead of Lynn Osborne outside Portico chapel
The Ash Wednesday service at The Portico following the Homeless Jesus dedication drew an overflow crowd inside the chapel. Rev. Vicki Walker, right, administers ashes to the forehead of Lynn Osborne on a downtown Tampa sidewalk outside.

Worley also suggested the purchase price might be better spent on direct assistance and said people shouldn’t need a statue to inspire them to help the homeless.

LaRosa and deVega said the Tampa church has ministries directly addressing homelessness and plans to add more. The statue can help prompt conversations that may change people’s hearts, LaRosa said.

“I think it’s provocative, and I think it allows people to pause and be struck by something they wouldn’t expect to see. I think that’s the purpose of it. It’s a testament to Jesus being in hidden places,” he said.

“This invites us to deeper reflection and deeper engagement with this issue of homelessness.”

Funding for the statue was raised beyond other charitable giving and did not reduce any of the church’s homeless ministries, he said.

“More tangible things need to be done,” LaRosa said.

“We are not just talking. We are working on that with Love INC [In the Name of Christ], an emerging nonprofit that is helping to coordinate churches’ response to the issue of homelessness.

“We’re launching a coffee shop with a mission that will directly benefit the most vulnerable of our city.”

The church hopes to start a worship service in The Portico sanctuary, slated for renovation, and to open the coffee shop on the campus in September.

– B.C. Manion is a freelance writer based in Tampa.

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