A week after a passerby called police about a homeless person motionless on a bench, the Bay Village church hosting what is actually a traveling sculpture of Jesus has landed at the center of a viral moment.
The statue depicts Jesus homeless, covered in a blanket and lying on a bench. His bare feet are the only visible body part. There’s a hole in each foot, meant to evoke the crucifixion.
Created by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz on a commission from the Westlake-based Community West Foundation, Homeless Jesus has traveled to 12 churches around Cleveland’s West Side since 2018. It’s currently at St. Barnabas Church in Bay Village.
“One of the first churches that it was put at was Messiah Lutheran Church in Fairview Park right on Lorain Road,” said Community West CEO Marty Uhle. “They had multiple inquiries about it from people and one call to the police.”
In both instances, police checked on the man and left after realizing it was a statue.
But this time the news spread like wildfire. Local news, then CNN and outlets in Seattle, Kansas City and elsewhere picked up the story. Saturday Night Live included it in its parody news segment Weekend Update.
According to Uhle, this is the first time anything like that has happened.
“We responded to media requests in Stockholm, Sweden, CNN India, Dublin, Ireland. It’s been amazing how far and wide this went,” Uhle said.
And the goal – raising awareness about homelessness – seems to have been achieved. Community West disperses grants to service organizations working with the Cleveland area’s homeless population.
The group has been collecting donations since the story went viral and requests to host the statue have skyrocketed, Uhle said.
“We had a waiting list. Now we really have one,” he said. “It’s quite fascinating – the latest requests came this morning from Miami, Fla.; Woodstock, N.Y.; Dearborn, Mich.”
But the statue was commissioned by Community West for display in Northeast Ohio. It won’t be going on a national tour.
The decision to call police, prompting the news coverage, is a controversial one.
According to a tweet from the statue’s current host, St. Barnabus Episcopal Church Reverend Alex Martin, police were called no more than 20 minutes after its arrival.
“It’s artwork and people are going to respond to it,” Martin said. “And it’s created some strong responses. I very much want to give the initial caller the benefit of the doubt and assume they called because… they called out of a place of kindness and compassion.”
According to Bay Village Police, the call was to the department’s non-emergency line.
“I believe it’s an actual person,” said the unidentified caller, calling from the road in front of the church on his way home from picking up his daughter at preschool. He never mentions whether he thinks the person might be in need of help. The caller doesn’t make it clear why he’s calling, other than to say there might be a homeless person asleep on a bench.
“I don’t think it’s a fake sculpture. It’s gotta be a person. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t look good,” said the caller.
Martin won’t comment on whether the police were the right people to call or to the bigger questions about the role of police in society.
“I can speak authoritatively about biblical views to poverty and the Christian obligation to stand with the poor and the outcast and the marginalized,” Martin said. “But if this statue, if this sculpture, is helping people have some of those conversations, I think that’s probably a good thing.”
The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Chris Knestrick said his organization could have been called instead of the police. NEOCH has outreach workers trained to help someone in the middle of a housing crisis.
“And I think one of the other options is going over and saying hi to the person and being like, ‘What do you need?’” Knestrick said. “I think there is a sense that we should really treat people as human beings.”
The statue’s success in raising these questions about homelessness and how homeless people are treated make the artwork a success, he said.
The statue will remain at St. Barnabas in Bay Village until the beginning of December, when it goes back to the Community West Foundation for its Christmas display.