Then Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
Foot washing can be a peculiar and awkward ritual to reenact in modern times, especially since most of us in this country don’t travel by foot in sandals through deserts, mountain sides, and along seashores like Jesus and his followers did. When we want people to look at or pay attention to our feet, most of us (if we can afford it) pay a podiatrist or massage therapist.
I had all but given up on 21st century foot washing rituals when I found myself volunteering a week at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia. Every so often, local medical students in the fields of acupuncture and podiatry would come to the shelter and offer free pedicures and massages to the homeless gathered on Ponce Ave. It was both painful and beautiful to watch these young , aspiring medical students hold in their hands the feet of homeless people as they treated ingrown nails, blisters, bunions and all manner of foot problems. The stench, the bloody toes, the hollers, the chaos, the long line, the tears, and words of thank you felt like a living gospel moment. It was by far one of the most poignant modern-day “foot washing” ceremonies that I’ve ever participated in.
The Open Door Community, as sad as it makes me, is no longer providing hospitality and foot care to the homeless people of Atlanta. In their letter announcing this decision, the founders of Open Door said this about their decision:
“When we moved into the old home on Ponce de Leon, the neighborhood was a place where many poor people — both housed and homeless — lived. We served food and hospitality to folks from personal care homes and from the streets. For many years we provided 10-12,000 meals each month, serving seven days a week. We provided showers and clean clothes for hundreds. We added two free medical clinics and a foot clinic. But now the neighborhood has changed drastically as a result of concerted public policy, escalating property values and police work geared to “moving the homeless on.” The personal care homes for the mentally ill are now offices and single family dwellings; the railroad tracks where many homeless folks camped have been transformed into the Beltline. The men seeking work at the “catch out corner” have, in large part, been moved out by police and security guards. Our area is fully gentrified and it has become an inhospitable space for the homeless poor. We serve meals to fewer people, and even our holiday meals that typically served 500, now serve only 300 or so. We anticipate that shortly there will be very few of the homeless poor in this area of the city.”
The people I met at Open Door will certainly be on my mind as I prepare the basin full of water for our foot washing ritual tonight at Rainbow. So will the many people in our world who lack clean water and a place to lay their head. Refugees the world over walk and walk and walk, with no home in sight and those of us with more resources so often think we can “move the homeless/refugee on.” But where do they go? Who will stoop to wash their feet?
Tonight we will begin our foot washing ritual by singing a hymn called “Here to the house of God we come” with text by Shirley Erena Murray. The music setting, by Colin Alexander Gibson, is named after a Cambodian refugee camp KHAO I DANG. Whether people participate in this ritual or not (it’s optional), I hope the symbols of towel and basin will be an opportunity to consider again the cries of the human family, and how we might yet share lodging with free hand, “space in our living, in our land.”
Here to the house of God we come, home of the people of the Way, here to give thanks for all we have, naming our needs for every day, we who have roof and rent and bread, sure of a place to rest our head.
There is a knocking at our door, sound of the homeless of the world, voice of the frightened refugee, cry of the children in the cold, asking the least that is their right, safety and shelter for the night.
God who is shelter, who is home, in borrowed rooms you came to live, pleaded to save the dispossessed, crucified, lay in borrowed grave: these are no strangers in your eyes, this is your family which cries.
We are all tenants of your love; gather us round a common fire, warm us in company with Christ, give us the heart to feel, to share table and lodging with free hand, space in our living, in our land.