Reflections on a footwashing service
We pulled into the parking lot of a 100-year-old black Baptist church in Durham, N.C., St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church. We were there for our Holy Thursday footwashing service. Since our Mennonite congregation doesn’t have its own building, we are always dependent on the hospitality of others.
I found a seat in the sanctuary next to some friends. As I looked around, I noticed that members of St. John’s, our hosts for the evening, had joined us for worship. After singing a few songs and reading a couple of Bible passages, we made our way to the footwashing basin. When my turn came, I washed the feet of the person in front of me, Doug, a member of our Mennonite fellowship. Then I sat down so the person behind me could wash my feet. It was deacon Marlow, a member of St. John’s Church.
I didn’t want him to wash my feet. It just didn’t seem right to me for an older black man to be bowed so low, at my feet, washing them, like a servant, like a slave. As he bent to the ground, I felt like I should say something, perhaps confess to him that this holy moment reminded me of the way people in North Carolina enslaved black bodies—the way his people were used, bought and sold, subjugated, oppressed, humiliated and abused; the way his black skin conjured for me the spirits of his ancestors. Listen, I wanted to say, your great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s blood is crying out from the ground beneath us (Genesis 4:10). With such a history, he should not take the form of a slave, not at my feet; I should wash his feet, all of us should wash his feet, as penance, as a modest gesture of atonement.
As he knelt before me, with a towel in his hand, bowed low, close to the ground, ground softened with the tears and sweat of his ancestors—as this black man prepared to wash my feet, I wanted to tell him about what was going on in our neighborhoods, stories I’m sure he already knew: that his kind and my kind, my people and his people, African Americans and Hispanics, aren’t getting along too well these days; that there’s black and brown tension in our cities, in our country—a struggle against one another to grab hold of a place in the so-called American dream, a battle not to be last, not to be at the bottom, to push the other down while we make our way up one more rung on the ladder of economic success, of cultural power, of political influence, of social respectability.
I wanted to tell him what a little black girl told me. We were working together in a community garden, and she told me that her mom had warned her to beware of lice when she was playing with the other kids. As we dug around in the dirt, I reassured the girl that she would be OK, but I asked her if she knew what to watch out for. I asked her how we would know if lice were around so I could make sure we didn’t get any on us. She told me that we would be fine, just so long as we stayed away from the Mexicans, because they carry the lice on their bodies, dirty bodies, brown bodies like mine.
I wanted to warn deacon Marlow about the lice, about how some people, even innocent little children, think my brown flesh is dirty, a contaminant to the social body, a disease spreading throughout North America. I wanted to tell him that maybe he should wear gloves as he took my dirty, brown feet into his black hands.
But I didn’t say anything. I just sat there, submissive, receptive, letting him take me, my feet, into him, his hands—a moment of union, our union in the body of Christ. With the water and with his hands came the gentle caress of Christ’s love, God’s grace made flesh. We were being drawn into the body of Christ with a touch of grace. If anyone is in Christ, behold, there is a new creation, says the apostle Paul, everything old has passed away; everything has become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).
New creation: happening in our midst, in the shell of the old. New creation: a power that breaks through the barriers of our society, a force of love that can empower us to transgress the concrete walls of racist nationalism. New creation: building a bridge across cultures, breaching political borders, crisscrossing congregations and traditions. New creation: making a space within us for migration, for our differences to mingle, for me to become part of you, and you to become part of me—a space for holy miscegenation, for a holy mestizaje. New creation: where people can share the wounds of the past, where if one member suffers, all suffer together with her (1 Corinthians 12:26), a place where wounds can bring life, Christ’s life, new life that flows from the wounds in his hands and his feet.
His hands and my feet—still bowed low, with his back bent before me, he began to dry each of my feet with a towel. After he finished washing my feet, I stood up from my seat, and we embraced. There, in the inner sanctuary of St. John’s Baptist Church, as some sang songs from their pews and others continued to wash and be washed, we were being made holy, with the washing of water and the word, becoming the splendor of God, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:26-27)—the joining of flesh in the mongrel body of Christ, the re-formation of our bodies in the womb of God, the church, where God is giving birth to a new humanity, a new creation.
With the water, with the towel, with his hands, deacon Marlow nourished and cared for my body, as if it were his own, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of the same body, his body, his flesh and bones on earth (Ephesians 5:29-30).
There, at church, there was a holy union, communion with God, and love was made flesh, grace took the form of a humble body. At my feet and in my arms, Christ had become black.
Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Church. This is adapted from the sermon he preached on July 6, 2011, at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Pittsburgh.