Washing the Feet of the Homeless

homeless feet

Teaching our children to be humble by role modeling selfless service.

Humility has always been a huge blind spot for me. For example, I never really knew the exact definition of humility, but I was too proud to look it up.

Unfortunately, constantly telling myself to stay humble doesn’t seem to work, so I’ve been searching for a “skillful means” practice to build humility. Reverend Heng Sure’s practice of bowing resonates with me, but I don’t have two and half years to bow up the California Coast.

After a mis-take with my son, I realized the power of footwashing. I remembered how Jesus washed the feet of the disciples at the last supper: “I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:15-17

Where to Start

When I approached a few friends to practice this ritual, no one felt comfortable. “Thanks for dinner. Can I wash your feet?”

Whose feet could I wash? As always, whenever I ask the Universe a question, I get an answer. This time the Universe used Facebook. A friend of mine, AJ Lovewins, invited me to his Homeless Outreach Walk, so I loaded up my two sons, a 10 pack of new white socks, towels, soap, and Burt’s Bees Foot Cream and headed to the San Francisco Civic Center.

When I got to the site around 7 PM, AJ saw me unloading my supplies.

“Are you going to do foot-washing?”

“I hope so, “ I answered.

“Good for you. Did you bring gloves?” AJ asked.

Oops, hadn’t thought about gloves or sanitizer. Just then it occurred to me that I might be diving into the deep end for my first swim lesson.

First Contact

Surprisingly, most of the homeless people I approached were just as apprehensive of having their feet washed as my friends. A number of individuals seemed embarrassed by their “uncleanliness.” Some didn’t want to expose their feet to the cold night air.

I started to think that this might not be the time and place to start this ritual, when we stumbled upon two homeless men tucked into a crevice of the Bill Graham Auditorium. When I mentioned foot washing, one of the men’s eyes lit up.

“Oh, I could really use that right now,” he said staring at his feet.

His friends seemed suspicious, but after a few minutes of contemplation he told his friend, “Bro, I gotta do this.”

We headed across the street to a park bench, which was nice since it was near a small play structure that my sons could play on. Andrew introduced himself and started apologizing for how his feet smelled. I assured him that if his feet were clean, then this wouldn’t really be necessary.

As I mixed hot water from a thermos with cold water and Epson salt, Andrew literally peeled off his socks. In the dim light, I could see and smell the sores, calluses, and decaying flesh on his feet.

With more apologies, he dipped his feet in the basin of warm water.

I bowed down and silently said St. Francis’s Prayer. I had thought about saying the prayer out loud, but I didn’t want to make Andrew feel like I was trying to “save him,” only serve him.

As I soaped his feet, Andrew winced. He had open sores and toes fused together. I realized that Jesus must have had dirty feet. Surely, someone who goes 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, hangs out with prostitutes, and enters tombs to raise the dead would not have perfectly manicured toenails. This thought empowered me to lovingly wash Andrew’s feet.

After cleaning, drying, and moisturizing his feet, I bowed down again with my hands on his feet and said a Hawaiian Peace Prayer—“…my peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you. Not the world’s peace, but only my peace. The peace of ‘I’.”

Andrew couldn’t stop thanking me.

“The only other word that comes to mind besides thank you is ‘orgasmic’,” he said with a laugh.

When I looked up, another homeless man was sitting on the bench.

“Can I get my feet washed?” he asked.

“Yes, but I don’t have any more hot water. We could use this warm dirty water or I could empty it out and use cold clean water.”

“How many feet have you washed with that water?”

“Only Andrew’s,” I replied.

“Oh that’s fine,” he said.

This man’s name was Joseph, and he had just hitchhiked down from Portland. As I washed his feet, he told me about the Rainbow Gathering where thousands of spiritual people get together for a month and “leave no trash.”

I asked Joseph when the Rainbow Gathering happened.

“What is the month before July?” he asked.

“June?”

“Yeah, it starts in June,” he said with a smile.

When I finished, Joseph thanked me and said, “I hope that brings you whatever you were looking to get out of it.”

As I gathered my things, Arthur, a homeless man who had volunteered with us to help other homeless people (think about that for a minute), came up to me and said, “That’s some good karma, Brother.”

The Ripples

On the way home, my boys and I stopped off for the ice cream I had promised them.

“What did you think about Daddy washing those people’s feet?” I asked.

“It was kind of weird,” said 7 year old Jett.

“Do you know why Daddy washed their feet?” I countered.

“Because they were dirty,” piped in 5 year old Fox, “and they were kind of sick.”

“Yes, we can heal people by washing their feet, Fox,” I replied. What I didn’t tell him is that I was trying to heal myself by washing the feet of others.

“To be kind,” Jett added.

“Yes, serving others is kind, but Daddy was washing their feet to remind myself that no matter how dirty or different someone looks, they are the same as us. We are all God.”

Later that night, drifting off to sleep while Fox cradled my ears in his gentle, soft hands, I felt a bit cleaner, lighter, and more humble.

[Names were changed to protect the identity and privacy of participants]

Photo: Flickr.com/JcOlivera

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