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Easter reflection: Encountering God through foot-washing

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This guest post is by Jason Storbakken, Senior Chaplain at The Bowery Mission. He has faithfully served our neighbors in need on the Bowery for more than thirteen years.

For more than a decade, I’ve had the privilege to lead the Maundy Thursday foot-washing service at The Bowery Mission, where we commemorate the way Jesus washed his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper. This is an exhaustive service in that we literally wash the feet, toes, and lower legs of dozens of guests who are part of our beloved community on the Bowery.

It’s remarkable to see our chapel partners’ and volunteers’ eagerness to provide support at this service. I’ve never had to ask for help; instead, they inquire about when and how they can contribute. They willingly empty and refill large plastic tubs with fresh water throughout the service, and surprisingly, they’re quick to roll up their sleeves and wash our guests’ feet themselves.

During this year’s service, amidst gospel hymns and the reading of John 13, we welcomed our community members to partake in this act of intimate connection. In a way, with each foot washed, a person’s dignity and value is affirmed. And, as many guests say, it just feels good — the warm, soapy water, the new pair of socks, the compassion, connection, the pampering!

Drawing close to our guests in this way offers us a glimpse into the daily struggles many of them endure. For some, swollen legs and feet bear witness to prolonged standing or sitting without proper support. Days and nights lived without adequate rest — crucial, yet often inaccessible — has exacerbated their condition, resulting in legs hardened like stone, calluses, hangnails, and sometimes open wounds.

Though church foot-washing services are sacred and noble, there’s a unique authenticity inside the walls of the Mission. While we only perform this service once a year, it underscores and highlights our year-round, day in and day out work to love and serve our neighbors. It celebrates the way our staff, in all the complexities of our varied roles and responsibilities, follows in the way of Jesus to minister hope and help to people whom Jesus called “my siblings” (Matthew 25:40b, 45b).

In the Gospels, we see Jesus consistently identify the presence of God among people living on the margins and underside of society. If we want to encounter the living God, then, we must go to the wounded and broken places in our world. It’s in these spaces that Christ’s light shines the brightest, dispelling despair, and providing a balm for the wounds. It’s in these relationships that mutual transformation occurs, and the kingdom of God is found in our midst. Perhaps this is the reason why our chapel partners and volunteers yearn to serve in such a humble way, especially on Maundy Thursday.

Recently my son, Elgin, an eighth-grader, accompanied me for a day at The Bowery Mission as he worked on his portfolio for a specialized art high school. His concept was to photograph only the hands of our guests and staff. In his artist statement, he pondered: What have these hands held? How have they been harmed?

Hands on the Bowery

There is an intimacy in drawing near to one another, to seeing deeply and allowing ourselves to be deeply seen. As we celebrate Holy Week leading up to Easter, may we remember each other’s humanity, cultivating compassion that leads to connection, and listening that leads to understanding. May we see one another, and in that seeing, catch a glimpse of the divine God. Because as my dear friend and colleague James Macklin preaches: “You can’t tell me that God created humanity and there isn’t still a spark of the divine in each of us.”

Maundy Thursday Foot-washing service at The Bowery Mission

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