On Faith

Gaining a Dose Of Humility, One Washed Foot at a Time

In a church in downtown Richmond, volunteers revive an age-old ritual of humility, submission and spiritual connection by washing the feet of the homeless.
In a church in downtown Richmond, volunteers revive an age-old ritual of humility, submission and spiritual connection by washing the feet of the homeless.
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

As they prepared for the holy ritual, the churchgoers had all the essential items: latex gloves, nail clippers, chlorine and antibacterial soap. The only things missing were the feet, and soon enough they poured into the church by the dozen.

Many were callused and cracked from cold nights spent on the streets. Some were sore and infected. What they needed was some old-school -- we're talking centuries here -- Christian doctrine in action. So volunteers at Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond got down on their knees and scrubbed.

The practice of foot-washing, rooted in the biblical account of what Jesus did for his disciples, has ebbed and flowed throughout church history, abandoned at various times for reasons of dogma or embarrassment. But in recent years it has grown in popularity as an act of submission, both at Easter season services and in many other settings.

Homeless shelters from Berkeley, Calif., to Atlanta to Virginia Beach have added foot-washing to their services for the poor. Men and women wash each other's feet in wedding ceremonies and marriage counseling. In Congress, a U.S. senator once washed the feet of an aide in a show of gratitude.

The action is as soul-wrenching and relevant in today's culture as ever, theologians say, especially in a place such as Washington, where a good dose of humility couldn't hurt.

Modern-day foot-washers, however, still must overcome age-old issues of awkwardness, hygiene and, occasionally, odor.

"There are a lot of things you don't think about at first, like the logistics," said Polly Chamberlain, 51, who began the foot-washing ministry in Richmond last year.

She got the idea while working in the church's soup kitchen, where she felt a huge disconnect between the volunteers and the homeless people they served.

"How can we really care about them when we don't even know them?" she asked. So she and others started washing the feet of the city's poorest every Friday before lunch, as a way to break the ice. The goal was to bond with their patrons in a profound way, show them someone cared and, by doing so, recapture the spirit of Jesus.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus shocked his disciples at the Last Supper by getting up from the dinner table, wrapping a towel around his waist and washing their feet in a basin. "I have set you an example," he said, "that you should do as I have done for you."

Ever since, scholars have debated whether he meant it literally.

In the Catholic Church, the ritual fell out of favor until it was restored in 1955 by Pope Pius XII, who said it should be practiced on Maundy Thursday, three days before Easter. In most other Christian denominations, foot-washing was similarly sporadic and never achieved the sacred status of such rites as communion and baptism.

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