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On the bench

Back in February a life-size sculpture of a figure asleep under a blanket on a park bench appeared outside St. Alban's Episcopal Church in North Carolina. A work by the Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, only the holes in the feet indicate that the figure is, in fact, Jesus.

'It's Jesus representing the most marginalized of society,' says David Buck, the church's rector. 'We're reminded of what our ultimate calling is as Christians, as people of faith, to do what we can individually and systematically to eliminate homelessness. Part of a faith commitment is to care or the needy.'

Not everyone has been so welcoming of the artwork. One local resident, Cindy Castano Swannack, says she called the police the first time she drove past it. 'I was concerned for the safety of the neighborhood,' she said, adding that she did not like how it portrayed Jesus as a 'vagrant'.

'Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help,' she said, 'We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy.'

Versions of the sculpture were refused by cathedrals in New York and Canada, but last November Pope Francis blessed and accepted a wooden model into Vatican City.

'The first thing he did when he saw my sculpture was pray, and then he blessed the piece,' Schmalz told CTV News. 'To have Pope Francis bless your sculpture is one of the most amazing experiences possible.'

Homeless Jesus has been installed with a bronze plaque with familiar words from 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.'

Other neighbours took to writing to the local paper: '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.'

But a local Presbyterian preacher has pointed out the biblical mandate for the piece: 'Where it says the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, that means he's homeless.'

The rector David Buck had one final point to make: 'There's a good reason why the artist left room for one person on the bench next to Homeless Jesus. Perhaps people will take a seat beside Jesus and pray.'