Hearts not made of stone

By J.E. Helm
The Sooner Catholic

It all started with a book. Sandy Howard’s pastor at Saint Francis Xavier in Enid, Father James Mickus, told her about the work of Fritz Eichenberg, a wonderful wood engraver and illustrator, a selection of whose works was now presented in the book, “Works of Mercy,” by Robert Ellsberg.

Eichenberg was a long-time friend of social advocate Dorothy Day. She had asked him to do illustrations for her newspaper, The Catholic Worker. He accepted, and his drawings frequently depicted the lives of the poorest of the poor whom Dorothy Day championed. Ellsberg was at one time an editor at The Catholic Worker.

Sandy Howard was serving as the director of Our Daily Bread, a soup kitchen in Enid, when Father Mickus gave her a copy of “Works of Mercy.” On the book’s jacket and on Pg. 78 of the text is Eichenberg’s famous “Christ of the Breadlines,” a stark black and white illustration created for The Catholic Worker showing Jesus in the middle of a line of down-and-out men, seemingly in line for food at a city shelter.

Howard was very much taken by the illustration as many others have been. She determined to use this work of Eichenberg’s as a visual mission statement for Our Daily Bread.
Howard received a donation of $10,000 from a woman who gave the gift in memory of her husband. Legal permission to use “Christ of the Breadlines” was obtained, and a commission was given to create a carved marble mural.

Today, the black and white mural adorns the street-facing wall in front of Our Daily Bread. Its stark design is meant as a reminder of the reality of hunger for many of those in our midst. The central figure of Christ in the line of men speaks to us and says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food.” (Matthew 25:36)

And Jesus Wept
In Oklahoma City, another work of art in marble also shows us the suffering Christ. The sculpture called And Jesus Wept is adjacent to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which honors the 168 lives lost during the 1995 federal building bombing.

Paul Meyer was the architect who worked on the entire restoration of Saint Joseph Old Cathedral and the construction of a new rectory after the property suffered severe damage in the bombing.

 A number of ideas were considered, but when the phrase “And Jesus Wept” (John 11:35) was suggested, Meyer knew at once that he had found an idea he could develop. Meyer’s son David was the sculptor who completed the statue of Jesus.

The site is harshly black and white. A grief-stricken Jesus coves his eyes with one hand, his other hand clenched above his heart; his back is turned, his head is bent. The statue of Jesus is white, Meyer explains, contrasting with the broken, black and white that is opposite of his perfection, the terrible evil that has transpired.

There are 168 niches in the wall that surrounds the statue of Jesus; each niche can hold a small vigil candle. Some aspects of the memorial are purposefully left undefined, according to Meyer. This is meant to invite reflection, each person considering what various aspects mean, why Jesus is turned away or what the short, black columns is the foreground signify.

Homeless Jesus
A third sculpture, also in Oklahoma City, is Homeless Jesus, a bronze casting by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, placed in front of the offices of Catholic Charities. The work first appeared in Canada in 2013 and has been copied in many locations throughout the United States. When Pope Francis saw the statue (at another location), he asked for a copy for the Vatican. The bronze that was meant for Oklahoma City was sent instead to Rome where it marks the entrance to the Papal Offices of Charities.

The statue shows a man wrapped in a blanket, sleeping on a park bench. It is veritably colorless, a dark grey. His face is barely visible. Only one closed eye can be seen; the face appears gaunt, and there is the suggestion of a mustache. The man is revealed to be Christ only by the wounds of crucifixion on his naked feet.

In several cities where the statue is located, people have called the police to express concern for the welfare of what they believed to be an actual homeless man. In Oklahoma City, Jessi Riesenberg, Catholic Charities senior director of development and outreach, said people sometimes leave items like a blanket or candies. One anonymous person left a stick of gum and even unwrapped it. She interprets these offerings as gestures that express an understanding of what the sculpture means.

Homeless Jesus calls us to remember Matthew 25:40, that whatever we do for “these least brothers,” we do for Christ himself, and conversely, in what we “did not do for one of these least ones,” we have denied Christ present among us (Matthew 25:40).

And Jesus Wept, Jesus of the Breadlines, and Homeless Jesus are all works in black and white, carved and cut in truth and reality. These three works of art call to us in our passing.

J.E. Helm is a freelance writer for the Sooner Catholic.