Holy Thursday, 2017
This morning, in the parking lot of La Superior grocery store in Durham, I washed feet as part of a service of solidarity for members of our immigrant community.
There a young girl, maybe eight years old—I can’t remember how many times I washed her feet. She kept on getting in line, waiting for another turn. She’d take a seat in the chair in front of me and say, “My feet got dirty again.” Then she’d stick them over the basin while I poured water and dried them with a towel. She’d smile.
I know this child. I’ve washed her feet before, at our footwashing protests in past years. Her dad always brings her. She’s always the first in line.
There’s another woman who comes every year. I remember her because she’s missing most of her big toe. Today, when she put her feet over the basin, ready for the water, I noticed that the rest of her toenails were painted with a bold, purple nail polish.
One man was led to my chair—a gentle old man who wobbled while he walked. He first set his hat on the ground, then he reached down to his shoelaces. He untied them and began to slip off his shoes with one hand, but couldn’t manage to pull off his socks. I noticed that he kept his other hand in his lap. It trembled with palsy. So I helped him with his socks, then took his feet and washed them. They quivered in my hands.
Next an elderly woman slipped off her shoes—black velvet shoes, well worn. As I poured the water, I wished I was a palm-reader, but for feet—not to predict her future, but to read her past. As I held her bare feet, I wished I could read the life written in the wrinkles of her toes, her heels, her soles. There were stories in her feet, if I could decipher them.
As pastor Julio offered the closing prayer, the eight-year-old girl, the one whose feet I had washed so many times—she asked to wash my feet. She led me to a chair, asked me to take off my boots, and I helped her pour the water, which she rubbed into my feet. Then she dried them.
The U.S. military dropped a bomb in Afghanistan—a massive bomb, so much destruction packed into layers of metal and pounds of explosives. And we were washing feet—a woman with purple toenail polish, a man with tremors, an elder with velvet shoes, a loving and considerate child. Bowed before each other in adoration of sacred, ordinary life. All of us awash in wonder and beauty. There’s an absurdity to this scene—that we pay attention to feet while our government makes war.
I don’t know how to make sense of it all. But I do know this: Footwashing reminds us that we are fragile creatures, that human life is vulnerable and precious—and that God holds all of this, all of us, in her hands. We wash feet because we love this world like God does; we care for human life with holy reverence, with humility and kindness.
There are mysteries here—in this water, in your hands, in our feet. Mysteries of God’s love in our gentleness, God’s tenderness. If only we could read the wrinkles in our feet, the calluses on our heels, the lines crossing through our soles—because if we could, I think that’s how we would read the story of God.