Most of us “do service.” Sometimes it’s far away, at an orphanage in Kolkata with DukeEngage. For many, it’s here in Durham, tutoring elementary school students or building homes with Habitat for Humanity. Maybe you want to do Teach for America after you graduate, or maybe you simply plan to volunteer at a soup kitchen once you have a family.
All of us who want to serve can learn from the Christian practice of foot washing. Whether you read the Bible as Scripture or as wisdom literature, the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet merits reflection. Every Thursday before Easter, Christians around the world remember the Last Supper, the meal Jesus shared with his community before being arrested and crucified. During that dinner, according to the gospel of John, Jesus abruptly “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” After he washed each of their feet, he commanded them to follow his example and wash one another’s feet.
This foot washing was not normal. In biblical times, feet got dirty. Walking around Jerusalem in sandals left feet sweaty and dusty. Slaves washed guests’ feet and the cleansing was done well before mealtime. The Catholic Conference of Bishops explains that Jewish law called for hosts to leave out a basin and pitcher for guests to ritually clean their hands and sometimes their feet—but hosts weren’t expected to do the washing. In fact, the law forbade anyone except a slave from washing feet.
Yet, Jesus interrupted the sacred Passover supper to perform a slave’s work. It came as a shock even for followers who had been with Jesus for years. Peter, the first disciple, protested, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Why would his leader take the role of a slave? Here Jesus once again illustrated the principle of inversion that is pervasive in the Bible. God uses unexpected people and practices. His plan overturns expectations. Moses protests that he can’t lead the Israelites out of Egypt because of his speech impediment. The prophet Samuel anoints David to become Israel’s king yet he was a mere shepherd boy and his older brothers were more likely choices for the role. Jesus ate with despised tax collectors and spoke with marginalized Samaritans who were unwelcome among his people. In this context of inversion, Jesus interrupting dinner to wash his followers’ feet makes sense. The Reverend C.H. Spurgeon once said in a speech that religious detractors thought God and Jesus turned the world “upside-down.”
Therein lies a lesson for service—be open to an “upside-down” world. Are you thinking that change can only come from the top when the best ideas sometimes come from the humblest of sources? Could a community’s strength lie in unexpected people and places? Maybe the bullied child at that Kolkata orphanage actually makes a great leader for her peers. Perhaps a chronically homeless veteran in Denver has the next great innovation in the fight to end veteran homelessness. Young people in New Orleans who dress in baggy clothes and look like hoodlums to outsiders just might offer a community’s best solution for rampant gang violence. Wherever you are, be open to hope in unexpected places. Stay open to the idea that change might come from the unlikeliest people.
The foot washing story offers an idea of service that is fundamentally multilateral and perhaps even mutual, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Jesus doesn’t command his followers to simply wash the feet of the poor and needy. Rather, they are to wash “one another’s feet.” So everyone needs their feet washed. Enter your host community aware that your feet need washing, too. What will you learn from your host family about how to love your siblings? How will those baggy-clothed youth show you what mentoring really looks like? When will the community you sought to serve end up serving you?
The international network of L’Arche communities exemplifies this principle. These residential groups bring together people with and without developmental and physical disabilities for long-term community and care. Jean Vanier, the Canadian who founded the first L’Arche community in 1964, writes in The Scandal of Service about the experience of having his feet washed by a L’Arche member with disabilities. He founded an international organization to care for the vulnerable, yet, here, he finds himself in a position of vulnerability with one of the supposedly vulnerable. The foot-washer becomes the foot-washee, the caretaker becomes the cared-for and the servant becomes the served. This mutuality made the service relationship infinitely more meaningful for both.
Go forth as a servant, but stay open to surprises. Don’t hesitate when the world seems upside-down—embrace ideas and leadership that come from unexpected places and unlikely people.
Go forth as a servant, ready to learn from the people you sought to teach. Every individual has a story to share and wisdom to offer. Receive stories and wisdom with gratitude that affirms the dignity and worth of every person you encounter. Remember that service runs in many directions—even towards you, the supposed servant.
Go forth as a servant, looking down at your own dirty feet that cry out for a washing.
Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. This is his final column of the semester.