Editor’s note: This story first published on May 25, 2018 (Mississippi Today), after Stacey Abrams won the Democratic nomination for Georgia governor. Abrams, who grew up in Mississippi, has received national attention for her organizing efforts ahead of the 2020 presidential election and U.S. Senate races in Georgia.
Stacey Abrams, who won Georgia’s Democratic nomination for governor, grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where she and her five siblings learned about service to others from their United Methodist minister parents.
The Rev. Carolyn Abrams said she and her husband, Robert, who both now live in Hattiesburg, tried to teach their children to strive “to make things better for others. Education was key, family and God. You go to church, go to school and look out for each other.”
She said those views are central to her daughter’s political philosophy.
Stacey Abrams, 44, has received national attention in recent days after winning the nomination by a convincing 53-point margin. She is the nation’s first African American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor and would be Georgia’s first female governor if elected in November.
Carolyn Abrams said her daughter attended pre-school through 10th grade in Gulfport after the family moved back home to Mississippi from Wisconsin. Carolyn Abrams was at the University of Wisconsin on a fellowship.
In Gulfport, Abrams said she and her husband were involved in various ministries, for the homeless, the poor and those in detention. She said their children always participated and would even perform plays at the juvenile detention centers.
“These things, I think, stayed with her,” said Carolyn. “The world could be better. I know she brings this with her in politics.”
The Abramses moved to Atlanta in 1989 where both parents pursued graduate degrees at Emory University. The parents later moved back to Mississippi where they served churches in south Mississippi in the United Methodist Conference. Stacey is not the only one of the Abrams’ children to excel. One sister is a federal judge in Georgia while others include a college professor.
In a statement from the campaign, Abrams father, referring to this daughter “as the best thing that has happened in Georgia since peanuts,” said: “I knew from a very young age that Stacey would be special. Throughout her childhood in Mississippi, I watched a young girl grow into a leader dedicated to service. Carolyn and I raised our children with the understanding that we must work everyday to do right by others”
She is known by numerous members of the Mississippi Legislature.
Former state Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, who was the minority leader in the Mississippi House, said he had met Abrams several times.
He said Abrams “will be a powerful governor for the people of Georgia. Of course, I am proud to say she is from Mississippi.”
Williams-Barnes said she called Stacey Abrams to congratulate her after the primary victory. Mississippi Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, said her parents and Abrams’ parents have been friends for many years. The Abramses were mentors for her parents, RoseMary Hayes Williams and Theodore Williams Jr., when like the Abramses, they opted to become United Methodist ministers. Williams-Barnes said Carolyn Abrams did the eulogy for her mother’s funeral.
“She is excited,” Williams-Barnes said. “We have a lot of hard work ahead of us to ensure she is elected governor of Georgia.”
But Williams-Barnes said she is not surprised by Abrams’ success. Besides being a politician, Abrams is also an author and attorney.
“She comes from a family with deep roots in Christ and a belief in hard work,” Williams-Barnes said. “Her success does not surprise me at all.”
Recently, a life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus, called Homeless Jesus, went viral after someone made a 911 call about a homeless man on a bench. The bronze sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz depicts Jesus, identifiable by the wounds on his feet, sleeping on a street bench wrapped in a blanket.
With replicas located in prominent urban locations, such as Buenos Aires, Capernaum, New York, Madrid, Melbourne, Rome and Singapore, Homeless Jesus now dots the globe. There are six replicas in Canada alone.
I have spent the past two years looking at the news coverage of this religious public artwork to try and figure out why both faith-based organizations and secular media are fascinated by it. I examined interviews with faith leaders at organizations with a Homeless Jesus and online news articles that reference it.
Regardless of one’s religiosity, viewers are captivated by the image of a Jesus as a homeless figure. For faith-based organizations, Homeless Jesus is a symbol that communicates and teaches viewers about core Christian beliefs.
Schmalz produced this sculpture as part of a series that visually depicts a passage from the Bible found in the Gospel of Matthew 25:35-45. Here, Jesus tells his followers that they are caring for him when they tend to the needs of those who are sick, poor, naked, hungry, thirsty, imprisoned and strangers.
For those familiar with the story of Jesus, the sculpture’s message may appear ostensibly obvious. Yet the sculpture asks them to take this message literally and to pay attention to the dignity of those less privileged.
Likewise, those on the margins of society may feel comforted by the notion that Jesus (considered by some to be the Son of God, and by others, a wise prophet) identifies with their situations.
Faith-based organizations that install a Homeless Jesus replica say they choose to do so because they want to make a bold public statement about their social convictions.
Despite an unfamiliarity with or ambivalence toward the story of Jesus, Homeless Jesus may still resonate with secular and non-Christian viewers. The sculpture presents symbols with universal meanings: a street bench and a body trying to say warm, wrapped in blanket. These symbols say something about physical vulnerability in a public space. When combined, they become an icon of homelessness.
Bronze sculptures are often reserved for historic monuments and statues of community heroes. When this medium is combined with an image of homelessness, it generates a clear and powerful message. The unusual combination asks viewers to see those who are homeless as people with dignity, worthy of being sculpted. At the very least: they are worthy of safe and affordable housing.
This sculpture is a challenge to the dominant tendency to ignore the needs and stories of people who are homeless. The homeless population is often perceived as “natural losers” in a competitive market economy. Capitalism justifies the presence of extreme poverty in affluent societies. Homeless Jesus presents an alternative narrative.
Religious art can communicate insight
Homeless Jesus, and its spot in the limelight, demonstrates how religious public art can play a role in promoting the ideas of an equitable society.
Back in the ‘70s, critical theorist, Herbert Marcuse, said art can oppose oppressive ways of thinking, behaving and speaking. As a scholar who left Germany shortly before the onset of the Second World War, Marcuse understood the horrors that arise when a population uncritically serves the interests of the elite.
According to Marcuse, art that offers alternative perspectives and challenges social norms, can create spaces where people can identify and question oppressive social systems.
Jürgen Habermas, another key critical theorist who is still active writing and theorising today, proposed that although religion can be prescriptive, it can also provide an alternative perspective on social reality. He said religious and secular citizens should be willing to learn from one another.
Habermas suggested that at formal levels of political decision making, religious individuals should work to translate their ideas into a language that their secular counterparts find accessible.
Homeless Jesus exemplifies how religious public art can communicate a religious belief in a manner that is respectful of and intelligible to a diverse secular audience. Religious public art can be an avenue for faith-based organizations to meaningfully contribute to the bettering of social life.