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Foot-washing tradition forges relationships

Foot-washing tradition forges relationships

Bishop Ken Carter washes the feet of a guest at First UMC, Miami. Photo by Steve Wilkinson.

MIAMI -- More than 250 people left First UMC, Miami, on March 7 with new tennis shoes, socks and a hot meal to fill their bellies.

Many of those newly shod and fed people were from Miami's homeless community.  They gave something in return to the volunteers who came to help with the church's 23rd annual Foot Washing for the Homeless. It was a gesture not easy for everyone to make. They sat before strangers and allowed them to wash their feet in a symbolic re-creation of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
Cynthia Weems is among volunteer foot-washers
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems shows volunteers the procedure for washing feet of the homeless at First UMC, Miami. Photos by Steve Wilkinson.

Foot-washing and the shoe giveaway are a tradition at First UMC that had its beginnings more than two decades ago with a small group of church members washing the feet of the homeless on Maundy Thursday. It gained a new mission following the tragic death of a homeless woman who had no shoes and was electrocuted during a rainstorm. The church hosted her funeral.

"The key component to our modern-day foot-washing has been shoes," said Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems, pastor at First UMC.

This year, the church welcomed a special guest, Florida Bishop Ken Carter.

 "I was blessed to participate in the service of foot-washing with the people of First UMC in Miami," Carter said in an email.

"I was also blessed by the men and women who came to us to be served. It was a profound act of giving and receiving, from both sides. And it was a witness, in words and in actions, to the living presence of Jesus who is still among us."

More than 140 volunteers participated, including more than 25 podiatry students from Barry University. Oils and ointments were applied to freshly washed feet, and the students provided podiatric checks. Many volunteers came from First UMC, but Weems said other churches in the community also helped.
Line up outside the church
The line for services at the annual foot-washing event starts early.

More than 20 volunteers came from the Korean UMC of South Florida, Fort Lauderdale. The church often helps First UMC with its mission to aid the homeless, but Weems said, "They came a long way and they made it a priority. It also brings together a diverse group of United Methodists in a common outreach."

Many of the shoes were supplied by Soles4Souls, a global nonprofit with an anti-poverty mission of distributing shoes and clothes. Community donations also helped support the giveaway, Weems said.

Many of the podiatry students came to the annual event during the school's spring break.

"We try as much as possible to find these opportunities," said Stephanie Kane, a second-year medical student and president-elect of the Florida Podiatric Student Medical Association. "We come into health care to help people."

Every one of the people who had their feet washed has a story to tell, but Kane said it can be difficult at times to get them to open up.

She recalled one man who hesitated before walking over toward her foot-washing station. Kane moved her station closer to him. He then sat down and recited scripture.

"He didn't realize I was actually paying attention," she said. But once he understood that, Kane said he began speaking directly to her. Kane had a special reason for reaching out to him.

It was obvious that his ankle was swollen from a prior fracture, she said. In fact, he told her that he had removed his cast on his own.

The students are not able to provide medical care, but Kane said the man promised he would visit a clinic to have his leg checked.
Medical student smiling, listening, preparing to check foot
Podiatry students from Barry University listen and connect with people who get a free foot check at First UMC, Miami.
Kane grew up in Miami and said she has volunteered at homeless shelters. But for some podiatry students, the foot-washing was a new, eye-opening experience.

"It really reinforces why you were interested in medicine and why you study 20 hours a day and why you're helping people who need it," Kane said.

Taking care of so many people takes a lot of organization, Weems said. But this year church members decided to encourage personal connections by taking a different approach.

"We sort of slowed down and everyone felt the result of that," she said.

People generally arrive early and wait in line. This year a volunteer was assigned to greet them.

"She would stand and talk with them," Weems said. "They've been on the street crowding around to get a number."

They could let their guard down and maybe laugh a little bit, the pastor said.

As guests were sent in groups to have their feet washed, two pastors met them to hand out the shoe and lunch tickets, and each time they were prayed for.

"It really seems to have lessened their anxiety," Weems said. "We felt really good about that. The whole day was impacted by the prayer. It's well worth replicating."

She recalled her first time as a foot-washer and the man who looked up at her and asked, "’Why do you do this?" 

“The first thing that came to me was that Jesus did this. We are doing it because he cared for and respected his disciples and we love and respect you."

For those who have their feet washed, the experience requires vulnerability and willingness. The personal connections make it worthwhile, Weems said.

"I think people who had their feet washed felt that they were important," she said. "They were being cared for."

— Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.