The new sculpture at Hyde Park United Methodist Church is designed to command attention. In other cities, it has prompted calls to the police.
Passers-by have been startled to see what they thought was a homeless person wrapped in a thick blanket and lying on a bench with only bare feet exposed. If they had looked more closely, they would have seen wounds on the feet left by nails.
They would have realized it was a statue of Jesus.
"It's unsettling, it's uncomfortable, it's jarring to see this individual," said Vicki Walker, the church's minister of missions and outreach. "Your eyes are drawn to the nail-pierced feet, and you gasp."
That's the point of the sculpture titled Homeless Jesus. Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz designed it to call attention to the plight of the homeless. It visualizes the biblical passage in the Book of Matthew, which calls on Christians to care for "the least" among us.
"How close do we come to homeless people?" Schmalz said. "Not that close. Usually there's a big bubble."
The sculpture's latest home is in Tampa at the Portico, the downtown campus of the church. Other replicas of the statue sit outside churches in 16 other cities across North America and in one city in Australia. It's slated to be installed in a dozen other cities across the world, including India, and has even been blessed by Pope Francis.
"It's our hope and our intent that we would remind people and remind ourselves that the homeless are not invisible," said the Rev. Magrey deVega, senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church. "In fact, when we look into their faces, we can see the face of Jesus himself."
Schmalz said the homeless are often treated as if they're not even there. In the Tampa Bay area, at times, they have been treated worse than that.
In 2007, St. Petersburg police came under national criticism when officers slashed makeshift tents in an attempt to clear a homeless camp. In 2009, businesses and residents pressured the Hillsborough County Commission into rejecting a plan to build temporary housing for the homeless near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Then in 2013, the Tampa Bay Times revealed Hillsborough's mismanaged Homeless Recovery program wasted millions housing the homeless in crime-ridden slums.
In recent years the number of homeless citizens in the bay area has remained steady. Last year there were 1,931 homeless people in Hillsborough County, according to the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. That's just 13 fewer than the 1,944 homeless reported in 2014. Pinellas County reported 3,387 homeless people in 2015, down four from the year before, according to a report by the state's Council on Homelessness.
"There's frankly still a lack of places for people who are unhoused to spend their days," Walker said. "I don't know where they're supposed to go."
The Hyde Park church has spent two decades helping Tampa's homeless. At the church's main campus on W Platt Street, Walker serves breakfast to those in need every Sunday morning.
"We are all doing our little parts," Walker said of local churches and nonprofits, "but they all don't add to the whole picture where everyone is housed and safe."
She has kept a miniature Homeless Jesus in her office for several years now. Schmalz started selling them once his sculpture — first installed in Toronto in 2013 — went viral.
Schmalz, a renowned Christian artist, has a few rules about where Homeless Jesus can go. It has to sit in front of a church people will walk past, he said. It's meant to be experienced, like a piece of theater. That's why he made room on the bench near Jesus' feet: so one can sit and pray before it. And he limits Homeless Jesus to one per city.
Tampa's Homeless Jesus was installed last week and is set to be unveiled today at noon, just before the 12:30 p.m. Ash Wednesday service at the church's downtown campus.
Church officials first started talking with Schmalz about obtaining its own replica of the sculpture last spring, according to deVega, the senior pastor. The outgoing pastor at the time set the groundwork, prompting 214 members of the congregation to donate the $40,000 it cost to manufacture, ship and install the statue. That money was raised separately from the funds used to help the homeless, deVega said.
Schmalz guesses about 10 percent of the responses his piece receives in new cities are negative: It comes from people who believe it's disrespectful to represent the Son of God as homeless.
He wonders why it took 2,000 years to imagine Jesus in this way. Too often, he said, Jesus is depicted as having "perfect abs, perfect blow-dried hair and perfect straight white teeth." Schmalz said he wanted to create a Jesus who would be more relatable, to bridge the gap between rich and poor. He believes that gap has never been greater.
As he put it: "If you're a Christian, but hate this sculpture and find it offensive, do you not read the Bible?"
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.