This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting stories of millennials who embody God’s hospitality. For more about the motivation behind this series, as well as a list of all the stories so far, click here.
“Your feet are looking a lot better, Leon!” A young woman in a hoodie sits across from an older African man, his bare feet atop towels on her lap. “See—this is what happens when you come back every month!”
Leon smiles and sighs contentedly. He’d immigrated from Ghana in the 70’s, planning on moving to New York via Chicago. “I never made it to New York,” he tells me in a rich West African accent. “The voices wouldn’t let me.” The voices have also kept Leon homeless for over a quarter century.
Homelessness can take quite a toll on a person’s feet, I learned, especially in a climate as inhospitable as Chicago’s. “Thanks to our cold, wet winters and hot, humid summers,” I overheard one volunteer explain to another, “moisture is trapped in the same shoes and socks for weeks. It’s incredible what that constant dampness can do to skin.” I remembered something I’d learned about trench foot in history class, but my thoughts were interrupted by an announcement: “Let’s set up six stations, and then meet in the lobby to talk about why we do all this before we begin.”
The announcement came from Sher Sheets, the aforementioned hoodied woman who will later wash and lotion Leon’s tired feet. She’s been hosting this monthly foot clinic for two and a half years now, borrowing the space from an old church down the street from her house. As we set up the foot-care stations—a stool, some towels, assorted lotions and soaps, and a soaking bucket—Sher describes the process for us newbies.
“We’ll greet our guests at the door, give them a name tag, muffins, and some coffee, and then invite them to sit and let their feet soak. After about fifteen minutes, wash your guests’ feet; look out for build-ups, injuries, or other things that might need special attention. Offer to trim their toenails—please be gentle!—and then dry their feet and add lotion. And that’s about it I think! Let’s head out to the lobby”
As we sit around a table and begin munching on homemade muffins, Sher fills us in on the history of the neighborhood (“Uptown used to be where all the movie stars lived in the 20’s, before Hollywood—now it’s home to dozens of shelters, psychiatric facilities, under-funded nursing homes”), the church (once home to over 4,000 worshipers every Sunday, membership has dwindled to a few dozen), and the foot clinic (“A lady from Atlanta started something like this down there, and when she heard what I was doing in Uptown, she convinced me to start one here too”). The content of this mini-history lesson is interesting, but secondary to the tone in Sher’s voice; even through her why-do-we-do-this-so-early-on-a-Saturday grogginess, it’s obvious that she absolutely adores her neighborhood.
But I knew that already. It’s why she moved here back in 2010. It’s why she hosts dozens of parties for her neighbors each year. It’s why she started JUSTembrace, a little grassroots organization focused on “equipping people to live inclusively, generosly, and hospitably.” And it’s why she seems to know every single person that walks through the door to have their feet washed.
What I didn’t know was how this specific act connected to Sher’s Christian identity. I thought I knew; when she asked our group, “When you think of washing feet, do any stories of Jesus come to mind?”, I was proud to have guessed both of the passages she had in mind—Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and the “sinful woman” washing Jesus’ feet. So when she asked “Why did Jesus wash his disciples’ feet?”, my instinct was to answer like this:
Jesus washed their feet—something usually done by a servant—to illustrate the humility and self-sacrifice central to the gospel. Likewise, we’re gathered here to embody that same humility, participating in the mission of God by washing the feet of those often seen as less valuable than ourselves. It’s a holy, sacramental moment. When we wash the feet of the poor, we’ll discover—like the harlot at the Pharisee’s house—that we’re washing the feet of our Savior. In the words of St. Francis, “When you kiss the lips of a leper, they become the lips of Christ.”
Fortunately, Sher answered her own question before I got the chance to make a jerk of myself. “Jesus washed his disciples’ feet,” she said flatly, “because they were dirty. Somebody had to do it. Jesus wasn’t doing something super spiritual; he was doing what needed to be done.”
“Don’t think of what we’re doing as some sexy, spiritual moment. It’s an intimate, vulnerable act—feet are funny like that—but it’s not so special. It’s just a small part of a bigger thing we’re a part of every day: treating our neighbors like family.”
That, I think, is the most hospitable thing about Sher. Despite the sacrifices she makes every day for her neighbors and the counter-cultural life decisions she’s made, she doesn’t see this kind of stuff as terribly unique or exclusively for people like her. As she states on the home page of JUSTembrace’s website, “Be encouraged by the stories we tell – but don’t for a second think you can’t do what we do – you CAN! In fact, you were MADE to! And we want to help!”
True, deep hospitability not only welcomes everyone just as they are, but invites everyone to welcome, just as they are. I’m sincerely convinced that Sher doesn’t think she’s doing anything special, anything that the rest of us couldn’t do just as well. And I’m starting to believe her. You could do this. Maybe even I could.
For information about JUSTembrace, including Sher’s blog, click here. Read her stories; get to know her and her neighbors a little better. If you’re local, come visit or volunteer some time. If you’re not local, donate some money to help out—they never seem to ask for it, but they really need the support. But most importantly, find ways to practice inclusion, generosity, and hospitality in your neighborhood. It’s really nothing special, but it is the kind of thing that Jesus does.