Eugene came over to the foot washing station, to where I stood waiting. I ushered him to sit on a black plastic chair opposite my child-sized green plastic chair. In his hands he held two bags, the sum total of his material possessions. The first bag was a small backpack that had seen better days, the second was a white plastic shopping bag filled with new items he had just shopped for at Street Store. He did not sit down, so neither did I.
“Would you like me to wash your feet?” I asked.
Eugene squinted his eyes at me, looking uncertain. I could tell his brain was trying to work out what this all meant. Eventually he set his bags down next to the black chair and said, “But these feet stink.”
“Then I will wash them clean for you,” I replied as we both sat down.
The running shoes he wore were dirty. The soles were coming loose. The laces were frayed. He slid them off his feet. He wasn’t wearing socks. Black muddy dirt was caked around each toe, as if he had stepped into a muddy mangrove swamp and neglected to rinse his feet afterwards.
I filled the wash basin with clean, warm water and a splash of Dettol and invited him to let his feet soak while I prepared soap, towel and cream. Silently, he did so. Eugene did not appear to want to engage in conversation. I squirted soap into my gloved hands and lifted his left foot out of the water. I rubbed the dirt off the outsides of his foot, and from between each toe, trying as I did so to pour as much love and dignity as I could into my actions. I regularly dipped his foot back into the warm water to rinse it off before squirting more soap into my hands and continuing the work of washing his feet. The soles of his feet were as wrinkled as mine are after swimming a mile in the pool at the gym. They were also pocked with pitted keratolysis. I wondered if his shoes were perpetually wet. “Yes,” he said, “the water gets in them.”
As I moved to this right foot, Eugene relaxed a little and we engaged in conversation. He has no family and no work. He sleeps on the streets. When both feet were clean and dry I asked if he’d like me to put cream on them. He nodded his head. “No one has ever done this for me,” he whispered. Again, I took his left foot, then his right, and massaged his toes, his ankles, his heels, his soles with cream. When I was done, he took a new pair of ‘slides’ from his shopping bag and I helped him slip them on. As we stood up, he picked his old, holey running shoes off the floor and asked where he could throw “these broken stinky shoes” away. He didn’t need them any longer.
This is one among many stories from Saturday’s Street Store. There was Winnie, an old gogo who spoke no English but delighted in being treated like a princess. Sthembiso who exclaimed with joy at the luxury of warm water. When last was I joyful at the abundance of hot water flowing from the taps in my bathroom and kitchen? Sthembiso who also was baffled that I would massage his feet but who so loved the experience that he admitted to talking so much so that I wouldn’t stop. Ladylove who told me that her parents must have been very much in love when they named her. Daniel whose feet were gnarled and afflicted with athlete’s foot, but whose heart was huge with love as he talked about his wife, their 3 children and 2 grandchildren.
It’s been weighing heavily on my heart how Christians (and I include myself in this accusation) spend so much time and energy debating and discussing, even fighting about, whether or not God approves of LGBT people, about whether or not pre-marital sex is acceptable, about whether or not tattoos are okay, about whether the law of the Bible is strictly applicable in our modern society. We pick apart the Bible, taking scripture out of context, oftentimes twisting it to fit our own agenda. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have these discussions. Healthy debate is good. Deep consideration and meditation on God’s word is good. But I also believe there are some fundamental things we’re missing out on when we focus so heavily on the theory of our faith; things that have more to do with living out our faith by our deeds (James 2:18b). The Bible encourages us to look out for and care for the orphans, widows and foreigners. This is consistent teaching throughout both the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 22:21-22, Isaiah 1:17, Deuteronomy 27:19, Hebrews 13:2, 1 John 3:17, Matthew 25:35-40). I believe, as a human being and a Christ follower, that my actions do indeed speak louder than my words.
When I get caught up in my own rightness, in the black & white, binary nature of our physical world it’s easy to lose sight of the heart of God’s word, the extravagant compassion of Jesus’s example and the Holy Spirit’s eternal flow through everyone and everything at every time. Jesus tells us that people will know we are his disciples if we love one another (John 13:35). In my church we call this ‘one anothering one another’. This is how we live out our being an image-bearer of God. This is how we manifest our universal Christ-like nature. This is how we love God, love people, and make a difference in our world. This is how we experience heaven on earth, right here, right now.
As I took a moment during Street Store to observe the customers and the volunteers, it struck me that THIS IS CHURCH! This is community. This is love. This is healing. This is God amongst us. Emmanuel. Nkosinathi.