Photo: Rob Howard
You wash my feet, I'll wash yours—seriously? In an ancient ritual, Edwidge Danticat finds humility, bonding, and a surprising sense of courage.
I occassionally attend a very small church, where once a month the members take turns washing each other's feet. Though I had been visiting for some time, it took me a while to build up enough courage to participate. First of all, I don't have pretty feet. Unwilling to put anything between the ground and myself—unless it's a really cold day or I'm going out—I mostly go barefoot, which has led to my having chronically cracked heels and thick, unseemly soles. Which is only partly why I approached the foot washing with a mixture of trepidation and horror. The other reason was that I thought it was yucky.
Foot washing, our minister has often said, was common in many ancient cultures, where it was considered courteous to offer a guest a basin of water to tidy up his feet upon his arrival. Usually the visitor, who most likely had traveled long and dusty distances in sandals, would wash his own feet. In cases where the visitor was an especially treasured or important person, the head of the household might do it. The cleansing of soles in a religious context has its model in Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. If he could humble himself before them, he told the disciples, so could they be humble in their treatment of each other.
I kept reminding myself of all this as I entered the plain white room off the main sanctuary where the foot washing was to take place. It was Easter, one of the most important dates in the religious calendar, if not the most, and everyone in the congregation was going to take part. The moment itself was a lot more intimate than I'd expected. Rather than a group wash, where a leader cleanses the feet of an entire congregation, we would go in two by two. Only one other woman would be in the room with me. When I walked in, she was already sitting on a low stool near a white ceramic basin and seemed to have been waiting for me. I didn't know that particular woman very well, but I knew her story. A year ago, pregnant with her third child, she was placed on bed rest for several months after her blood pressure had risen out of control. Not being a close friend, I hadn't visited her. Still, when she returned to church with her baby, an especially large and happy boy, she blissfully embraced everyone, including me, thanking us for our prayers and moral support.
We Hear You!