Friday, March 25, 2005

Do you understand what I have done to you?

Prison is not a comfortable place.

There’s the obvious discomfort of walking through metal detectors, barbed wire fences, and doors that slam locked immediately behind you. There’s the recycled air that always induces a headache, the bathrooms that require an officer’s key to unlock them, the grim stares of prisoners and the questioning looks of staff, wondering where you really belong and why you’re hanging around here in their territory.

And then, there’s the harder stuff. The chanting and marching of the diagnostics going through an introductory prison boot camp fills the compound with rhythmic reminders of the stifling order of the place. The tired, withered faces belie the unimaginable hurt that is held within these walls. And the stories, the never-ending stories of lives overflowing with rejection, confusion, and desperation are testimonies to a life that is just hard to live.

Prison is not a comfortable place.

But last night, the women of Metro State Prison offered me an incredible sense of comfort, of reassurance, of home.

They washed my feet.

Washing each other’s feet isn’t something many Christians do, despite the fact that it was an explicit command of Jesus during the Last Supper: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.” The Church of the Brethren does it twice a year as part of our Love Feast, a distinctive practice that includes a fellowship meal and communion in addition to the footwashing.

Last night, Brethren churches held their Maundy Thursday Love Feast, participating in what was Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and strengthening the bonds of community, servanthood, and shared faith. I wasn’t at a Brethren church. I haven’t been at a Love Feast for years, in fact, always far from home and caught up in midterms.

I wasn’t at my church last night. I wasn’t at another Church of the Brethren. I wasn’t even in a church. But during the footwashing service inside the gates and barbed wire, in the midst of the tired faces and the heartbreaking stories of Metro State Prison, I was at home.

A talkative young black woman to my right, expressing surprise at how warm and soothing the water felt on her own feet, knelt down in front of me, poured water from a basin over my feet, drying them ever so gently. I turned to the woman on my left, knelt down, and washed her feet - swollen, dirty, ingrown toenails and all.

It was a familiar ritual in an unfamiliar place. It was an intimate action in a place where intimacy is dangerous. It was tenderness in a harsh world, acceptance in the midst of rejection. It was servanthood within the walls of an institution that relies solely on power structure. It was comfort in the most uncomfortable place I have ever been.

It was Jesus: the ultimate contradiction, the ultimate tension, the ultimate reversal.


Anonymous said...

Yours is a powerful, hopeful post.

On the other hand, while my congregation hosts the city's homeless during the month of March, we held our love feast/feetwashing at another location.

No reaching out; no witnessing.

Anonymous said...



Travis Poling said...

This should make us reconsider who we welcome at the Love Feast table, and even what level of preparation may be necessary before hand. Can we really prepare for God to move in our midst except to empty ourselves?

Dana said...

Yep, it was quite an experience. And the minimal amount of preparation made the impact of the actual footwashing all the greater.