Feet are gross. I have never liked them, yet last week I found myself with some unhoused friends’ bare feet in my hands as part of one of Open Table Nashville’s foot clinics. At these outreach events Open Table staff and volunteers offer basic foot care to our friends on the streets. Generally it is like a pedicure that one might get at a beauty salon or spa, but not focused so much on the visual aesthetics of feet as on their comfort as folks living on the streets and in shelters tend to do a lot of walking – often in bad shoes and socks.
I am part of the Christian tradition and, naturally, washing feet has a particular religious meaning to me. But many others who join in do it for any number of reasons. Whatever the case, I understand a bit more now the significance of the story in the Bible where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Like our friends on the streets here in Nashville, Jesus and his disciples (along with virtually everyone in the ancient world) walked almost everywhere. Their feet must have been covered not only in dirt and whatever else may have been on their path, but also with blisters, sores, cuts, callouses, and ingrown toenails.
As I sat on the ground with a man’s foot in my hand (we’ll call him Matt), I washed, scraped, and clipped while he and I had a delightful conversation about traveling, where we’d been and where we yet hoped to go. We landed on Ecuador in particular because my wife and I were fortunate to go there last summer, and he and his girlfriend hoped to travel there someday if they can get their finances in order.
Tending to Matt’s feet was one of the more terrible and meaningful experiences I have had in a while. It was terrible because feet, as I mentioned already, are gross. It was meaningful because I was humbled to be in such a position wherein I was sitting, quite literally, at the feet of someone who, in many other circumstances, over whom I would be in a position of power. I have stuff, a fair bit of it in fact. Matt needs stuff, also a fair bit of it right now.
It is thus often the case that relationships between people who have stuff and those who need stuff tend to be merely transactional. In other words, the one who has stuff gives it to the one who doesn’t, and the interaction basically starts and ends right there. However, in the work at Open Table, they work to be relational. Foot washing is one way to build the necessary bridges, or raze the potential barriers, to beginning relationships because the process takes time, makes for some interesting conversations, and shows the person whose feet are being cared for that they matter. Even their gross feet matter.