I saw her peering through the crowded doorway, her face hardened with concern. “Tinamarie!” she yelped. “I really need your help.”
“Yeah, come in!” I replied, “Tell me what’s wrong.”
During my year of service at St. Christine’s Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen through Christ the King Service Corps in Detroit, this was a common situation. Yet something felt slightly different. The woman calling out to me had a panic in her voice, an urgency.
She shuffled in with a 5-year-old boy in tow. I knew her well but had never seen the child before. We went to the office section of the pantry, away from the noise of food distribution day.
“This is my son, Danny,” she whispered. “His dad dropped him off for good today. This is what he’s got.”
“His shoes are way too small.” Desperation clouded her usual calm and tough demeanor. I bent down and felt his shoes; his tiny toes were crunched under his feet.
I looked down at Danny, his dark brown eyes looking up at me, the weight of the day written on his little face. He wore jeans, a blue shirt, a disheveled orange jacket and a stained yellow backpack.
Her eyes welled up. “His shoes are way too small.” Desperation clouded her usual calm and tough demeanor. I bent down and felt his shoes; his tiny toes were crunched under his feet.
“O.K.,” I said, picking him up and putting him on the chair, his feet dangling above the floor. “I’ll see what we have. What’s his shoe size?”
“I don’t know,” she murmured, eyes glued to the floor.
My stomach dropped. I said a quick prayer as I booked it to the back room: Lord, I need shoes for this kid. I’m not kidding. This isn’t an option.
The lesson I take from Jesus’ washing of the feet is this: I do not decide which lives have value and dignity; God does.
People who need food often need other necessities, so the food pantry had some essential donated items stored in the back. It is not, however, a shoe store and did not have a vast selection—or really any selection. We got what we got, and we gave what we could. I grabbed as many shoes as possible and dashed back to Danny.
I knelt down in front of him and took off his shoes. Relief swept over his entire body, and he let out a sigh. On one foot he had no sock, and on the other he was wearing an old white sock that went most of the way up his leg—one of his dad’s socks, no doubt.
I put a pair on him: too big. I put on a second pair: still too big. Another: too small. Another: no good.
Finally, just right.
I looked up at his mother, and she looked at her son with tears of relief and exclaimed: “Look, Danny! You’re not going to have ouchies anymore!”
That moment broke me and simultaneously put me together again. That moment transformed me because I heard the voice of God from a deep place within myself, saying: This is your place. Your place is on the ground putting shoes on somebody else’s feet.
After this experience, I read Jesus’ washing of the feet differently.
You call me “teacher” and “master,” and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet (Jn 13:14-15).
I used to read this Gospel passage as a suggestion, not a command. Doesn’t that “ought” leave some room for interpretation? I used to read it as a meaningful and important story in Christ’s life, not a way to live mylife. Now, I read this Gospel passage as a reminder of my life’s purpose: encounter and service. When I read this Scripture or hear it at Mass, I am called out of myself. I am challenged to reflect on my lifestyle and ask, “When was the last time I sat on the ground and washed someone else’s feet?”
The lesson I take from Jesus’ washing of the feet is this: I do not decide which lives have value and dignity; God does. I always knew this, but the conviction did not move into my heart or my hands until I encountered Danny. And it means I do not get to sit by and accept behaviors, ideas, rhetoric or laws that dehumanize my brothers and sisters. I do not get to plead ignorance when it comes to the intrinsic human dignity of God’s creations.
If I am being honest, living a life of solidarity can be tough. It is inconvenient and sometimes it smells like feet. It requires action, sacrifice and direct opposition to our self-centered culture. Nonetheless, it is the example Christ has set before us. This Holy Thursday, we can remember that following Christ’s path not only asks but demands something of us. I know I constantly need the reminder.