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When you think about being a servant or demonstrating a true act of humility, what comes to your mind? Maybe some of you were in the service industry, so visions of bringing plates of food to a table come to your mind. Or maybe you volunteer with children with special needs and that’s your idea of humble service. Or maybe your desire is to keep our environment beautiful and you help pick up trash on your days off. There are plenty of things that come to my mind when I think of being a servant, but in a weird way, there’s a bit of self-congratulating that comes with all of those activities. It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back when we think we’ve done some “beautiful act of service.” We receive accolades for being so selfless. It’s not hard to see that even when we try to be humble, our narcissism can creep through. That’s probably just me though; I’m sure none of you are that way…
Today is Saturday, the day after Good Friday. As I reflected on the celebration of the Passover and Maundy Thursday, I realized it’s an especially appropriate time to write this blog. If you’re familiar with the story of the Last Supper, what two things come to mind? For most Christians, it would be Jesus breaking bread with His disciples and sharing communion, and also, the washing of their feet.
In our Western culture, it’s hard to wrap our minds around what this practice meant, but if any of you have traveled in less clean parts of the world, you’ll probably understand. Not to be gross, but I remember living in Nepal during the monsoon season, coming home and literally being covered head to toe in mud. My feet got it the worst, though, and they were often black from traipsing around in disgusting, excrement-filled water all day. Yuck. And even in the dry season, the roads were made of semi-compact dirt and the dust from them would settle between my sandal and my toes – you would think I had a really nice tan but, no, it was just grime. So the thought of coming home and having someone I respect offer to clean me up? It would be unheard of. If anything, that would be the servant’s job, certainly not the job of a friend or a superior.
And, yet, that’s exactly what Jesus did on the night of the Last Supper. The disciples were all there, their grimy, dust-caked feet around the table. And Jesus took a basin and a towel, and He used His hands to wash them.
I’m just going to be honest with you…I’m a bit of a germ freak (I try my best to not think about it too much) and so the idea of touching someone else’s gross feet does not appeal much to me. And that’s precisely what is so beautiful about this picture. Washing the dust, dirt, and sweat from someone’s feet is probably one of the most humbling things one person can do for another.
Truthseekers International bases its ministry around washing the feet of people they meet around the country. Since their main focus is with the OBC (other backward caste) and out-caste communities, they are meeting people who are in the lowest part of Indian society. Another word for a person who is an out-caste is “untouchable.” A person who can’t even be touched certainly is not going to have their dirty feet washed, especially by someone of a higher caste.
That’s what makes the ministry of Truthseekers so incredible. It’s one thing for us here in the West to symbolically wash the feet of others (I have seen this at weddings and Christian events), and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. But it takes on a whole new context and meaning when you’re working with people who literally cannot be touched by people in other castes. Can you imagine what that would be like? To sit on a chair, never having been touched by anyone outside of your caste, and having your feet washed?
To perhaps bring this reality home, I want to share with you something I witnessed in Kathmandu that I’ll never forget. A few years ago, I was out on a run, and had stopped to take a short break, which happened to be at the foot of a Buddhist temple. Because it’s a place where the community comes to worship, the steps leading up are full of people begging. Elderly women sitting with street dogs, young girls holding their naked and malnourished babies, a man missing his limbs…the human condition in all its grittiness.
So I was standing catching my breath and there was a man, nicely dressed, sitting nearby on his motorcycle. A beggar woman was nearby, and while he didn’t look directly at her, he waved her over to his bike. He took a crumpled five rupee note (worth about seven cents) and threw it behind him, to the dusty ground near his rear wheel. She stooped to pick it up and brought her hands together to her forehead to thank him. He never once looked at her.
This is real life, happening in the same world we’re sitting in right now. Out-castes of the Hindu system are deemed not worthy of any kind of respect or dignity. Seven cents won’t be handed to an out-caste…it will be thrown to the ground for them to pick up. So imagine that beggar woman being placed on a seat, looked at in the eye, getting warm water poured on her feet, being touched with hands of care. It’s revolutionary.
My last night in India, I was attending Truthseekers’ weekly Sunday night service. Sunil, TSI co-founder, was reminding the congregation about the importance of the kind of servant leadership that washes the feet of those people no one cares about. He was reminding us that God shows no partiality; He is not impressed with what people have, what they do, or who they are. Sunil paused and then called me up to the front, and had me sit down in a plastic chair. He then called another of the TSI staff, a young man by the name of Obed, to come and wash my feet. Again, this may not seem like a huge deal, but in India, where women are seen as worth much less than a man, it is unheard of for a man to be a servant to a woman.
When Obed dried my feet with a clean towel, Sunil then called a women up from the carpeted floor, a firecracker of a Christian named Ruth. I took Obed’s place on the ground, put the towel over my shoulder, knelt down, and poured water over her feet. I looked up at her and smiled, used my hands to clean the dust from her toes, and then gently dried them.
I realize this may seem strange to the Western mind…and that’s okay. I’m not afraid to do things that are unconventional. But, see, in a culture where there is clear hierarchy – and you don’t cross those lines – foot washing is radical.
I have an excellent story that I’ll share with you in a blog to come about a man who used to be a Hindu idol sculptor and then converted to Christianity. Now he carves beautiful statues of men washing the feet of women.
For now, I leave you with this thought. You probably won’t have very many opportunities to wash a person’s feet…maybe you won’t ever. But what does it look like for you to be a servant? For me, I have to think beyond what I will get pats on the back for. To be a true servant is to do what Jesus did…get on our hands and knees, kneel before those who the world sees as nothing, and serve them with compassion and dignity – without the need to be seen or thanked.
If you’re interested in being part of a foot-washing program with Truthseekers, you can find out more info here.
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.