How A Religious Sculpture Became A Viral SNL Moment

A sculpture intended to make people think and possibly start conversations about the ways in which houseless people exist within communities certainly did that, although perhaps not in the way intended by the original artist, nor the organization which owns the replica displayed outside a church in Bay Village, Ohio. As reported by CNN, the replica of the sculpture "Homeless Jesus" (shown above), by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, features Jesus Christ wrapped in a blanket while lying on a park bench, head covered but wounds from the crucifixion visible on his exposed feet. The sculpture was installed outside St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on October 12, 2020. The statue belonged to Community West Foundation, a nonprofit group that cares and advocates for homeless people; the statue had been touring various local churches.

About 20 minutes after its installation, police officers arrived on the scene, responding to a phone call from a concerned citizen reporting seeing a man sleeping on a bench. Father Alex Martin, a priest at St. Barnabas, told CNN, "I very much want to give the caller the benefit of the doubt that they were genuinely concerned and called out of compassion for someone who they didn't know." CNN notes that Bay Village is a relatively wealthy community in which just under 3% of the town resident's live in poverty, per the U.S. Census Bureau. As Father Martin put it, "It's a place where seeing someone sleeping on a park bench would be jarring."

Even 'Saturday Night Live' had to weigh in

Father Martin took to Twitter to discuss the incident, retweeting the church's original tweet about the statue's installation, in which they announced that its intention was "to raise awareness of homelessness in Cleveland and remind us that all people are created in the image of God." The tweet continued, "Within 20 minutes of the statue arriving, I was having a conversation with a very kind police officer because someone called to report a homeless man sleeping on a park bench. Within 20 minutes ..." The post went viral, racking up over 105,000 likes and about 26,200 retweets as of this writing. Father Martin posted a link to a website at which people could donate, noting, "every penny raised will be used to feed, clothe, and house those in need. Hopefully some good will come from all this." 

"Saturday Night Live" even weighed in on the proceedings during its "Weekend Update" section, devoted to discussing and poking fun at the week's news items in a news desk format that has been a part of the show since its premier in 1975. The mention was brief; as reported by West Life News, "Update" anchor Michael Che (shown above) quipped, "Police in Ohio say that a report of a homeless man sleeping on a bench turned out to be a statue, which is a huge relief because they shot it 15 times." Neither the town in Ohio nor the fact that the statue actually depicted Jesus Christ as the homeless man in question was mentioned.

Many replicas around the world

According to his personal website, sculptor Timothy Schmalz has been creating his large scale bronze sculptures for over 25 years. "I describe my sculptures as being visual prayers. When I create a three dimensional sculpture in bronze I am quite aware that it will last longer than myself. I realize I am between two things that are much more durable than myself: Christianity and bronze metal," he posted. Replicas of the "Homeless Jesus" piece are found around the world. In 2013, Canada's CTV News reported that one cast ended up in Vatican City after being rejected by two Catholic cathedrals: St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in Toronto and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Schmalz took it to Italy himself to offer it to Pope Francis. According to Schmalz, "The first thing he did when he saw my sculpture was he prayed, and then he blessed the piece. And to have Pope Francis bless your sculpture is one of the most amazing experiences possible."

The incident in Bay Village, Ohio was not the first of its kind. Per NPR, the 2014 installation of a replica of "Homeless Jesus" outside of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina led to another confused citizen calling the police because they thought the statue was an actual person. The church's rector, Reverend David Buck, told reporters, "This is a relatively affluent church, to be honest, and we need to be reminded ourselves that our faith expresses itself in active concern for the marginalized of society."