Homeless people have terrible feet.
Toward the end of a long winter — it’s not over yet; we’re supposed to wake up Easter morning to 2 feet of snow — everybody’s feet show signs of neglect, because who’s going to pay for pedicure to hide inside the LLBean boots? Only the people who flew to Cabo for spring break.
Homeless people, though, have worse problems than chipped polish. Many of the same issuess that contribute to homelessness contribute also to poor health. Deep cracks open up in leathery skin. Toenails become ingrown or fall off. Small wounds don’t heal. Urine runs downhill. Wet socks never get completely dry, nor anywhere close to clean. Alcoholism and diabetes join in unholy synergy.
Do you know what gangrene smells like? Looks like?
Do you know what it feels like to have your own flesh rotting from your body?
“…he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
We peeled away socks that had grown into skin, soaking, tugging gently, cutting when necessary. Then we cleaned, not just with a symbolic stream of warm water but with soap and cloths and antiseptic and tears, and sometimes with surgical instruments. We applied antibiotic ointment and bandages and clean socks, and we passed out boots to all who needed them. The garbage can behind us filled quickly with filthy socks, foul-smelling wraps and used nitrile exam gloves. When the odor grew overwhelming, someone silently replaced the bag. No one mentioned it.
While people ate, the health care professionals among us quietly counseled. You have to keep your feet dry, they said more times than I could count. If you’re drinking in the sun, take off your shoes and socks. “Somebody steal my boots,” they countered. Better to lose your boots than your feet, we said.
We sat and talked, then, listening to the stories homeless people love to tell, the ones about who they used to be. Nobody lectured, except about dry feet. We packaged food for them to take out into their world (the shelter has closed for the season, despite the forecasts of deep snow); we cleaned up; we made a list of supplies needed for the next day’s meal. Those are tasks volunteers perform every day, although not the foot washing — health care is usually provided in the weekly free clinic, separate from the meals. There’s a meal every day in one of the churches in that community — the town where I live, not the one where my tiny church is. There, we make different, less formal arrangements for food, shelter, health care, transportation for services, etc., but we make them and pay for them out of our pockets, not just during Holy Week but every week of the year. We offer hope. We promise to be there whenever someone needs help.
We don’t have a fancy church. There’s not a flake of gold, not a single Renaissance painting. During the week, there’s not even heat. But there’s also not hatred. There’s not judgment. There’s not a lot of what outsiders imagine goes on in a church.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about second chances, because we believe we’ve been given ours for a purpose. We’ll talk about not being defined by our mistakes. We’ll talk about the work that still needs to be done. We won’t rail against abortion. We won’t pound the pulpit about homosexuality, although we might talk about the new beginning our denomination is about to experience when Amendment 10A to our constitution passes next month. We won’t be hauling children into the back room for a dose of sexual abuse; we’ll be telling them that a broken egg under a tree means that a baby bird has been hatched and is learning to fly. We won’t be protecting pedophiles; we’re as horrified as you are.
And you probably won’t be there, but that’s ok, because on Monday, we’ll be back out in your world, sharing bread, sharing hope, and trying to keep homeless people on their feet.
Blessed Easter to you all.