First Presbyterian Church of Orlando is about equidistant between Orlando Public Library and Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. A few blocks north, the homeless pass the library with their bedrolls, backpacks and shopping carts. A few blocks to the south, patrons of the arts congregate in their high heels, tuxedos and tickets to Broadway plays.On the corner of Jackson Street and Rosalind Avenue, where those two groups intersect at First Presbyterian, is the future site of "Homeless Jesus" — a life-size sculpture of a Jesus as a homeless man sleeping on a park bench.
The bronze sculpture, by Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz, has sparked outrage and praise in the nine cities throughout the world where it has been installed. Churches in Toronto rejected it. Pope Francis blessed it.
To some, the sculpture is blasphemous — Jesus was the Son of God, not a homeless man. To others, including First Presbyterian Pastor David Swanson, it perfectly represents Jesus as a man of the marginalized.
"Jesus identified with the suffering and the circumstances of the homeless," Swanson said. "To me, it says everyone has dignity and worth, and it's a reminder to everyone that when you do it to the least of these, we're doing it to him."
The depiction of Jesus is subtle. The face of the man on the bench is covered by a blanket. Only his feet protrude from beneath the blanket with the telltale scars of the nail holes from his crucifixion.
"It's very striking. It just looks like someone in a shroud or a blanket. You don't see a face, but when you look at it closely, you see the scars on the feet, and you realize it's Jesus," Swanson said.
Orlando was selected not because it has an inordinate amount of homeless people, but because the ambition of the sculptor is to have one in every major American city.
"It wasn't your specific homeless situation, but there is a specific homeless situation in every major city," said Tony Frey, Schmalz's business partner and the person responsible for scouting locations for the sculpture.
Frey, who is familiar with Orlando because his mother-in-law lives in Winter Park, said Swanson was the first to respond to a query he sent four downtown Orlando churches. Swanson said he had read about the sculpture in other cities and felt his church was the perfect place for Homeless Jesus in Orlando.
First Presbyterian feeds breakfast to an estimated 200 homeless people every Sunday and donates $150,000 annually to homeless organizations, and Swanson serves on the board of the Commission on Homelessness in Orlando. But the church also has the affluence within its congregation to find a donor to contribute the $40,000 the sculpture costs to create, transport and install.
"For me, the $40,000 will remind people that Jesus is still with us and wants us to see the least and the lost," Swanson said.
Swanson expects Homeless Jesus will be in place in April, when it will join those already in place in Knoxville, Tenn.; Chicago; Phoenix; Charleston, W.Va.; and Davidson, N.C. Other American cities that have ordered the sculpture include Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cincinnati; Oklahoma City; and Montgomery, Ala.