When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you...”
Throughout my life, I have probably heard the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. That’s not to say that this simple story was ever just a simple story to me: I remember even at a young age being left dumbfounded that the God of the Universe, the Creator of All Things, had “humbled himself, taking the form of a servant” in the person of Jesus Christ, to the point of washing another person’s dirty feet (and of course, eventually to the point of death on the cross). I remember going to church services where those in attendance would have their feet washed by another as a way to remember and imitate Jesus’ act of humility. I also remember one time when, in order to help me and my younger siblings better understand humility, my mother once got on her knees and washed our feet as she told us Jesus’ feet-washing story.
While all these examples and reminders of the feet-washing story have had lasting impact on me, during this particular season of Lent, I had a new experience of humility that will forever change how I view this story…
This month, we had one youth named Travis who returned to Covenant House Atlantic City after a weeklong discharge for his refusal to follow structure. Travis informed me that while away, he had been walking around the city by day, and sleeping under the boardwalk or at a friends’ place by night. Apparently, Travis had not taken off his boots during the week, and when he returned to Covenant House and had finally taken them off, the soles of his feet were blistered, had turned a yellowish color, and had produced a stench that one could smell all the way down the hall.
At that point, another youth named Ken came into the room. One thing you should know about Ken is that he comes from Camden, New Jersey, which has been ranked as the absolute poorest city in all of the United States. Ken may seem a little “rough around the edges” to some (he definitely did to me!). Topics like gang life, shootings, drugs, food stamps, jail, his “baby-mama” drama…these are commonplace, everyday things for him. To be perfectly blunt, the “street life” is the life he knows.
When Ken came into the bathroom, he noticed the stench and the look of Travis’s feet, and said, “Oh shoot, Travis has trench foot!” (Apparently, trench foot happens when you walk around in soggy shoes for a long time, and the bacteria in the moisture collect on your feet, producing blisters, peeling flesh, discoloration, and a strong odor.)
Ken then turned to me and said, “Mr. Ricky, Travis needs a bucket of hot water, some salt, some soap or shampoo, talcum powder…” Ken explained that he knew exactly what was needed because he had had trench foot himself in the past. At the end of Ken’s list, I ran and found as many of the items as I could.
I came back to the men’s bathroom expecting to give the items to Travis so he could begin washing his feet. But when I got there, Ken was still there with Travis. Ken grabbed the items from my hands, mixed the soap and salt together in an empty water jug he had found, turned the shower on, and began to pour the mixture over Travis’s feet in the shower. Ken then made another mixture in the bucket for Travis to soak his feet in after rinsing them off. And after Travis’s feet had soaked for a while, Ken helped pour talcum powder on Travis’s feet.
I stood watching this whole endeavor in a state of awestruck disbelief. To be honest, prior to this experience, my main interactions with Ken were mostly ones in which I was trying to inconspicuously look to see if his eyes appeared to be bloodshot from possible marijuana use. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected Ken to actually sit there and help another youth wash his feet.
I was shocked by Ken’s humility. And I was ashamed for being shocked by Ken’s humility. (Is it possible that I had unconsciously only viewed Ken as a “hood kid” before this? Had I failed to see the good that was just waiting to spill out of Ken, if someone would only give him the chance?)
And yet, here was Ken, humbling himself in such a beautiful Christ-like manner, helping to wash his fellow youth’s feet! And he thought nothing of it!
Lent is a time of learning what it means to become one with Christ: one with Him in his Passion, in his self-denial, and in his humility. For me, Ken’s act of humility has been the defining landmark of this year’s Lenten season.
In that one simple act, the way I looked at Ken changed. I had now seen Ken be concerned for his fellow man, and as he expressed this concern in such a humble act of service, Christ shone through him.
In that one simple act, the way I looked at myself changed. I now had to repent for my previous unconscious judgment and preconceptions of Ken, and I began to pray that I might become more like Ken was in this instance—like Christ.
And in that one simple act, the way I looked at Lent and the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet had changed. For in that one simple act, Ken reminded me that Christ is here, ready to reveal himself in the most unlikely of places, ready to challenge our preconceptions, ready to wash the feet of others yet again, and ready to call us to do the same.