“No one knows his name, a man who lives on the streets, and walks around in rags. Once I saw that man in a dream. He and God were building an extraordinary temple.”
– St Francis of Assisi
There’s a bronze statue that sits outside an Episcopal Church in an upscale college-town community just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.
The life-size sculpture depicts a sleeping man on a park bench, wrapped in a blanket. It’s the typical image of a homeless man that we’ve seen countless times, but for one thing – the man’s feet peek out from under the blanket to reveal a nail-scarred wound in each. A bronze plaque offers the words from the Gospel of Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” The brilliant subtlety of it all lets us know the homeless man that we have seen so many times, ignored, stepped over, crossed the street to avoid or perhaps put a coin in his cup, bought him a cup of coffee, or sat down to have a conversation with, that that man could actually be Jesus.
Crafted by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmaltz, the statue has not surprisingly stirred some controversy.
One resident of the town, surprised by its realism, called the police, and said, “I was concerned for the safety of the neighborhood.”
Another said, “My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench.”
A third said, “Jesus is not a vagrant. Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help.”
But for others, the statue reminds them of what it means to be compassionate… how important it is to pay attention, that every life matters, that God is present in all of us, that Jesus stood with the poor.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus spoke of his own homelessness when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
And, of course, in the Gospel of Matthew, we have the very inspiration for the sculpture of Homeless Jesus: “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 was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
It’s important to truly appreciate this line in a Christian context – these words tell us in stark clarity that the sacred, God, Divinity, the Beloved live in those that our society considers the least of these. This is not some gentle “love your neighbor” phrasing that allows us to feel good about ourselves because we’re kind to the person who lives next door… this is far more radical… who are the least of these in society? Who are those who are viewed by others as the worst? Who are those that our society considers of no value? The “living trash” of our people? Those are the least of these and those are said to be equal with the person we value the most… that they are the Beloved… and we are to respond to them as such.
As the Executive Director of the Shalom Community Center, a day shelter and resource center for people experiencing hunger, homelessness, and poverty, I regularly work with people with active addictions and un-medicated mental illnesses, not to mention felonies, sex offenses, physical deformities, and chronic disease… in many cases, the most reviled people in society, the least of these.
About a year ago, I was called to an emergency in the back parking lot of the Center. I saw a young man there, wearing a white, stained tank-top, and dusty shorts… arms and legs bare, no shoes. He was unshaven, marked with mud, and he was aggressively shaking in the dirt, unaware of his surroundings and out of control of his body.
His seizure slowed to a stop, his body stilled. We surrounded him, to protect him, shield him, keep him safe.
The ambulance arrived and tended to him. They lifted him up by his shoulders to place him on the stretcher, and as they lifted, his arms extended outward, his hands hung lightly down, and his head rolled to one side.
And the unmistakable image of Jesus came to my mind, Jesus being taken down from the cross.
I had known this man for many years – young, in his 30s, a father of 2, funny, kind, charismatic even. He was also chronically homeless and an advanced alcoholic. His seizure and unconsciousness had been a product of alcohol poisoning. He had drunk too much, too fast, shooting his blood alcohol content to well over .4, a fatal dose for most of us, but a fairly common event for him.
And there he was being lifted out of the dirt and up off the concrete, unconscious, out of control of his body, near death… and I saw Jesus in him… I felt Jesus in him. It moved me to tears. I loved this man. I loved him… and there was nothing more than that… a simple intimacy… a gentle care. He had become the Beloved.
St Francis of Assisi said, “No one knows his name, a man who lives on the streets,
and walks around in rags. Once I saw that man in a dream. He and God were building
an extraordinary temple.”
There’s a tale that says if Jesus were to return, he would come as a simple homeless man.
If we are to take seriously Matthew 25, then Jesus has come back already… Jesus has returned as the homeless man, the addict, the developmentally disabled person, the schizophrenic, the illegal immigrant, the sex offender, the foster child, the battered woman, the gang banger… perhaps Jesus has come back as you.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
The man in the dirt from my story lived. He also now has a home, thanks to a Housing First program at my Center. He struggled at first, moving into a new home, but he’s stabilizing now. While he hasn’t beaten his addiction, he has dramatically reduced the amount that he drinks and he regularly visits with his children.
And every time I see him I am reminded of that day, of him lying in the dirt, of him striking me in the core of my heart as he revealed to me the omnipresence of God.
I haven’t shared with him the story of how I experienced him on that day… maybe I should… maybe he would like to know how he and God are building an extraordinary temple. Maybe we all would.
This piece was written by Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Executive Director of the Shalom Community Center. To donate to the work of the Center, click here.
* Shalom Community Center, Inc. is not affiliated with any particular religious denomination, however its values and many of its supporters are religiously inspired. Our services are open to all, regardless of gender, race, color, creed, ability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin. This piece is offered as a personal expression for those who find value in it and in no way indicates any defining religious stance of the organization.