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Story behind 'Homeless Jesus' sculpture in Schenectady

Story behind 'Homeless Jesus' sculpture in Schenectady

Anonymous benefactor helps bring artwork to St. Luke's Church
Story behind 'Homeless Jesus' sculpture in Schenectady
The gray, life-sized, bronze sculpture first appeared on St. Luke's Church's property during the fall.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

The man wears a cloak, and sleeps on a bench outside St. Luke's Church in Schenectady.

The garment covers the man's face, but not his feet.

"You don't know who it is until you get up close," said the Rev. Dominic Isopo, pastor of the Roman Catholic church on upper State Street in Schenectady. "His feet are exposed, and then you see the nail prints. It's almost a haunting kind of image."

The haunting nail wounds represent the Crucifixion, and give away the identity: The figure is an artist's version of Jesus Christ — at rest, wandering, no place to go.

The artwork apparently has haunted one man, who may live in the Capital Region, a man who can relate to the troubled existence faced by many homeless men and women.

The gray, life-sized, bronze sculpture first appeared on church property during the fall. There's a story behind the work: "Homeless Jesus," also known as "Jesus the Homeless," was created by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz.

Schmalz has installed the piece around the world, including Vatican City in Rome, and at churches in Ireland, Singapore, Spain and New York City, among other places. Schmalz has created artwork — many with religious themes — for the past 25 years.

The artist approves locations for his work, and when St. Luke's considered an art piece during its recent capital campaign, Schenectady won that approval. Funds were requested from church faithful, money that would pay for artwork and build a new pastoral center.

Word spread in the church and on social media platforms. Donations came in.

The story behind the purchase sounds like a movie script. "Homeless Jesus" inspired a man who once visited St. Luke's and never forgot the experience.

Isopo said it happened years ago. A man who had lost everything — his job, his wife, his savings, his friends — came knocking at St. Luke's. He was a homeless man, and had been turned away from other places that night.

He found refuge at St. Luke's and a friend in Isopo. He talked to the pastor, and found comfort.

"To be honest with you, I don't remember that," Isopo said of the meeting. "But that's a frequent occurrence at St. Luke's, a lot of people coming in for money or help or just somebody to talk to."

After a little while, the man left. He was supposed to call Isopo the following week, but never did.

Communication resumed recently when Isopo received a letter from the man — who did not sign his name. But he did enclose a check for $40,000.

"It's a way to say 'Thank you for treating me as a person,' " Isopo said, reading from the letter. "Then he said, 'You would appreciate the irony of a homeless man providing the 'Homeless Jesus.''' He signed it, 'Once homeless friend.' Completely anonymous."

The letter was postmarked in Albany. Isopo believes the man heard about the fundraising campaign and decided to show personal and financial support for St. Luke's.

Church officials hoped the benefactor — a now wealthy man who has turned his life around — would make an appearance near the church.

"We had several ceremonies for the dedication of the building and a separate one for the statue itself," Isopo said. "Committee members who were aware of this letter were hoping he might come back, we had placed on social media we were having these dedications, hoping he might see them and anonymously just come back and check it out. But we didn't notice anyone that we really didn't know."

The sculpture has become a conversation piece. Isopo said people leaving buses on State Street will see the sculpture, approach it and take photos. "So it's caused some energy in the neighborhood," Isopo said.

The priest has also heard that a police transmission mentioned the artwork one night — an officer thought there was a dead body on the bench, but was later informed the "body" was really St. Luke's new sculpture.

Isopo said "Homeless Jesus" has a message for the St. Luke's community, and any other visitors who might come knocking. He believes it shows solidarity with the homeless, the hungry, people who have been forgotten. And it's a visual greeting, an introduction to the church.

"Making them feel welcome and valued for what they are, whether they're Catholic or not, we do that in many different ways," Isopo said. "The food pantry, spiritual, programs we provide, really just trying to give people some dignity and hopefully they find that dignity here at St. Luke's.

"The next step is to build a relationship with God," Isopo added. "That's the ultimate goal."

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].

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