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Gaining a Dose Of Humility, One Washed Foot at a Time
Thomas, who teaches graduate seminars on foot-washing, has doubts about its use by Washington politicians.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword because, when you demonstrate your humility, you've probably lost it," he said. "I don't doubt it could be a powerful sign, but it shouldn't be reduced to a photo-op."
There is, however, ample precedent for scrubbing by the politically powerful.
English monarchs, dating as far back as the 13th century, washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday as a public sign of piety. Some, concerned with the sanitary habits of the poor, were rumored to have others pre-wash the feet. The practice continued until rulers of the 17th century, apparently missing the point, had subordinates wash feet for them. The tradition never recovered, and monarchs now hand out "Maundy money" instead.
But at the church in Richmond, the act abandoned by royalty has been revived and upgraded by the ragtag group of soup kitchen volunteers. After soaking the feet of the homeless in hot water, the crew rubs the feet in home-brewed massage oils, trims the nails and fits the feet into brand-new socks.
Many of the homeless said they were wary of the foot-washers at first but have grown attached.
"At first it was weird," said Dawn Wright, 32. "Because you have corns and bunions, you know, you don't want nobody to be handling your feet."
Pregnant and homeless since November, Wright has drifted with her 7-year-old daughter from shelter to shelter. One constant in her life has been the Friday talks over foot-washing with the volunteers.
She said she doesn't know the Bible story it comes from or the theology and long history that comes with it. But she knows one thing for sure:
"When they put my feet into that hot water -- whew!" she sighed. "It sure feels like heaven."
On Faith appears the first Sunday of each month.