Foot Crossing

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, March 2011
– PDF version –

Every weekday morning, more than 100 pairs of tired feet cross the threshold of our parish building. A newly homeless couple trying to find resources for survival stands on their weary, calloused feet, waiting to enter our hospitality center. A man drenched from the morning rain and reeking from alcohol limps into the familiar lobby, hoping to get a dry pair of socks and a jacket. A heavy Vietnam War veteran wearing an unbuttoned shirt and feathers tied to his long hair waits for a new pair of shoes to fit his swollen, infected feet.

People’s feet tell the stories of homelessness and disease. Some of our guests carry within them deep secrets of how they landed on hard times. Others may be silent about their past physical traumas or how they have abused drugs. They may even try to hide their need for food, companionship, or a new pair of underwear. Our volunteers and staff understand that people often do not want to admit their vulnerability. However, people cannot hide their homelessness, illnesses, and defenselessness when our nurses and volunteers deal with people’s sore, filthy feet.

Foot care ministry
Every Wednesday in our hospitality center at the Downtown Chapel Roman Catholic Parish in Portland, Oregon, the staff and volunteers provide foot care. This once-a-week offering affords people an opportunity to make sure their feet are given proper medical treatment. This ministry began not with the notion of medical assessment and management but with the ancient tradition of foot washing and welcome.

Roy contacted us nearly a decade ago from a suburban parish. He inquired about offering sessions on centering prayer for people surviving poverty. Roy told our staff that he had already facilitated groups in local jails and also various groups of people living with HIV/ AIDS. He wanted to pass on what he himself had discovered in his own life: the deep and abundant love of God. Roy quietly spoke his own story to our staff of his years of wretched anger and hatred toward family members. He told us that his hardened, heated life had been transformed with prayer. Roy assured us that God was still healing his relationships with his wife and children. He was also the foster father of more than a dozen at-risk children. So the members of the staff agreed to his request for offering a time of contemplative prayer among people who live outside and who suffer the many issues of poverty.

After several months of facilitating group prayer, Roy came back to our parish staff with another request. He and his wife longed to discover why Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Roy said to our staff, “1 know that Jesus ate with his disciples everyday, but on the night before he died, he ate with them one more time and then washed his friends’ feet.” He said with an intense desire, “1 have to find out what that means.”

Thus Roy and his wife began our foot ministry. They welcomed people into a small room with gentle conversation and intentional hospitality. The couple was shy and intimidated at first as they provided soothing salts to soak putrid feet. They trimmed long, yellow toenails and provided clean white socks that they had purchased themselves. While they stooped before people with aching feet, they internally prayed for each person. Our foot ministry was born of a man who admitted to both his selfishness and to his life’s being completely transformed by personal prayer.

After several months of washing rank and sore feet, the couple came back to speak to our staff. The holy couple explained that they glimpsed a reason why Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Roy quietly said to us, “I believe Jesus washed the feet of his beloved so to see their faces at a different angle, in a new light, in the intimacy of genuine humility.” Roy and his wife continued their service in their own lives by receiving two more foster children into their home. When the couple left our foot ministry, our parish nurse continued it. Today, Sharon and other volunteer nurses, student nurses, and other volunteers receive people on Wednesday mornings. Now the focus is not only to bathe people’s feet but also to provide more medical assistance.

Sharon provides soothing Epsom salts, healing lotions, and creams. The nurses look for deep infections and open wounds that will not heal. They know when to send our guests to a doctor or an emergency room. The volunteers fill plastic bins with hot water and sudsy healing salts. They invite people to soak their feet, and the volunteers enter into people’s lives through the stories of their feet. Sharon and others listen to the words people share and become attuned to their hope that someday homelessness, poverty, and addictions may also be soothed and cured. They wipe each toe with bleached towels, and each foot is examined and dried. They teach our guests how to care for their feet when disease and infection are present because of diabetes. They cut curly long nails and wipe scaly skin with care and concern. The nurses deliberately dress each foot with new white sweat socks.

We provide our foot ministry as an extension of our morning hospitality center because feet are the main source of transportation for many people living outside. Most of our guests cannot afford appropriate health care, and in most cases health care is not accessible to people living on the streets. We also provide this basic foot care because people live in the reality of Portland’s rain and cool weather all year long. Every day, people’s feet are not just damp but squishy wet. People come to us with prune~likeskin and yellow, tough nails. The rank smell of feet permeates our entire bUilding and lingers long into the day. People expose their secrets by crossing our parish threshold and offering theideet to be cared for by our volunteers.

Our volunteers and nurses enter into the mystery of Holy Thursday’s Mandatum every Wednesday morning. This ministry extends the mission of Jesus from the ancient liturgy of the Triduum. The Gospel of John reminds us that our foot ministry is not just a reenactment of the past but a vital ministry in our generation. The ritual gesture is neither fake nor meaningless in our community. Our foot ministry puts into daily action the call of Jesus to become people of hospitality, to enter into the mystery of people’s stories. Our foot care volunteers show us that intimacy happens when we see people’s faces from the perspective of love and service. People’s feet tell us stories, especially when we listen to them from the angle of looking up into their weathered, beautiful faces.

Holy Thursday foot washing
The liturgy of Holy Thursday invites people in every parish into the role of hospitality. The act of washing feet is still a sacred form of worship. Some parishes are quick to replace the foot washing on Holy Thursday with hand washing or shoe shining. These replacements seldom work; they do not bear the weight of the intimate act of exposing dirty feet to the community. Those other acts do not reveal vulnerability or suggest that people actually need God or the community for survival in daily life. Naked feet expose the Body of Christ in real need on Holy Thursday.

Entering into the mystery of the Mandatum on Holy Thursday evening invites every person into the earthy, human need for Christ’s redeeming love. Our parish sets up chairs in our three aisles before the liturgy begins. After the Gospel and homily, the people designated for “foot washing go to their preassigned chairs and remove their shoes and socks. Every person who attends this Mass should see naked feet. People should be able to enter into the action of this rite. The presider and servers process around the chapel to hold, wash, and wipe the human foot. The feet of our people are seldom beautiful, and their nails rarely (if ever) receive a pedicure. The smell of sour feet needs to be part of the rite – not perfumed, perfect feet.

The Mandatuin tells the story of every worshiping community and reveals how each one listens to the Gospel during the entire year. The stories of vulnerability told in naked feet connect to the ways the parish serves people. The foot washing is linked to a young mother wiping the bottom of her infant after a bout of diarrhea. Foot washing connects to the middle-aged man who washes the aging body of his father after he has suffered a stroke. A mother holds the forehead of a grade-school-age daughter vomiting in the toilet. A wife washes the blood off her husband after surgery. A husband cleans up food from his wife’s body after feeding her stomach through a tube. The Mandatum on Holy Thursday connects the human vulnerability we all face in caring for those we love with the public ritual of the church.

Foot washing on Holy Thursday reminds every parish community that we begin each ministry from Jesus’s call to prayer and service. Many parish communities resist entering into such filthy concerns, but we are all called to enter local hospitals with prayer and willingness to be changed by the suffering of our friends and neighbors. We are challenged dUring the Triduum to get our own feet wet from sweat by building a home or painting a garage. We must walk the extra mile to support fundraising efforts for breast cancer or AIDS. On Holy Thursday, we are reminded that we do all of those things because of the intimate love of Jesus, who offered his life for each person.

I recently asked Gwen, one of our regular foot washing volunteers,to articulate how this ministry has changed her. I wish everyone could see her in action, using few words as she carries tubs of sloshing water in our basement to prepare for our guests. She washes and bleachestowels, wipes up floors, and invites people to experience foot washing. These actions go well beyond her words. She said to me, “I appreciate the trust our guests develop in our abilities as well as limitations to provide for what they need.” She also added, “The community helps me to maintain an attitude of grateful living, to not take things for granted, and to do what I am able.” Gwen does so much without the notice of so many. Gwen can also be seen on Holy Thursday serving the Eucharist or reading the Scriptures.

Gwen’s daily actions guide our Triduum. Her actions, along with those of all of our volunteers, speak the reality of John’s Gospel. She and the many nurses and volunteers live the Mandatum every week. The connection of prayer and service is lived on Wednesday mornings in our parish basement. I do not have to look very far to preach the Gospel on Holy Thursday. The feet that cross our threshold each day are signs of the crucified Savior. Their smell reminds me always to walk with people who suffer.

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