The Homeless Jesus sculpture outside Toronto’s Regis College has been attracting plenty of attention. Photo by Michael Swan

Seeing the homeless among us

  • April 28, 2013

TORONTO - Ever since installing its Homeless Jesus sculpture outside its front door, Regis College has been getting second looks.

Theology professor Fr. Gordon Rixon recently watched a late model Mercedes Benz cruise by the Wellesley Street West doors, glide to a halt, back up so that the occupants inside could peer at the life-like and life-sized statue of a man wrapped in a blanket on a park bench, with the stigmata visible on his exposed feet.

“I noticed, very sadly, they didn’t get out of the car,” Rixon said. With so much attention falling on the new statue by sculptor Tim Schmalz, Regis hosted a panel discussion on homelessness in the Jesuit theology school’s chapel April 17.

The sculpture has been a way for Regis to engage the whole city on an important, even fundamental, concern of the Jesuits, theologians and all Christians, said Regis College president Fr. Jack Costello.

“We really hope that we will be changed by that sculpture being among us,” Costello said.

The archdiocese of Toronto was happy and supportive of the Jesuits giving Schmalz’s sculpture a home after St. Michael’s Cathedral had to turn down the 320-kilogram bronze piece while in the midst of massive renovations, said Rixon.

A number of long-term homeless people were in the Regis College audience along with graduate students, priests and professors to look a little more closely at what homelessness means for the city.

“The homeless are not who we think they are,” said Covenant House director Bruce Rivers.

Rather than kids running away from work, school and responsibility, about 70 per cent of homeless youth were forced out of their homes and most have suffered abuse or neglect, Rivers said. Half the 10,000 kids a year who pass through Covenant House Toronto come from middle- or upper-income households. More than a third suffer major mental health issues.

With about 65,000 youth in Canada homeless at any one time it’s not a small problem, but surveys show 87 per cent of Canadians are unaware of a significant youth homelessness issue.

Theology student Ted Penton recalled what it felt like to be homeless. As a Jesuit novice, Penton had spent his five-week pilgrimage travelling from Montreal to Winnipeg and choosing to spend a third of his nights at homeless shelters. His first night in an Ottawa shelter he encountered the difficulties of a complete lack of privacy and the unease of trying to sleep among poor, desperate and mentally unstable men. There was a man barking like an animal, another shouting obscenities and another threatening to beat up anyone who made any more noise.

By the time he had been rejected by one shelter and subjected to the regimented, Kalfkaesque system at another, Penton found himself in Sault Ste. Marie feeling depressed and paranoid — despite the fact he’d had the luxury of staying with Jesuit communities on nights he wasn’t sleeping at the shelters.

“It was just brutal,” Penton said. “It’s a stressful environment.”

This fall, Penton will move to Chicago to work with the Ignatian Spirituality Project, which offers retreats and spiritual direction to the homeless.

The statue and homelessness itself should make Christians think about how they are part of the body of Christ, said Rixon.

“We are challenged in the psyche to consider what we think it means to be human,” he said.

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