Foot Washing

Many years ago, while serving as a Catholic priest, I was invited to celebrate Holy Week with some men who were being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Port Isabel Processing Center, located outside of Brownsville, Texas.

When I asked the men which way they would like to pray, one of them asked if we could do “that feet-washing prayer.” The feet-washing prayer comes from the Holy Thursday liturgy in which, following the Gospel of John’s narrative of the last supper, the church reenacts Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. The community is reminded, in this way, of Jesus’ remonstration that no one is above the obligation to care for each other, however humble that service might be, and whomever it is that is in need of that care.

That was the prayer service these men wanted during that particular Holy Week. And so, on that morning in the midst of a federal prison, we managed to round up a bucket, some warm water, soap and a couple of towels. The men—there were about thirty of them—removed the flipflops the government had given them, and became quiet.

I knelt on the floor. I took the first man’s feet into my hands. I rinsed them, soaped them, rinsed them again, and dried them. I moved onto the next man, and then the one after that. I remember the distinctiveness of their feet—some were swollen, some were thin. They were all calloused and scarred, however, and one fellow still had bandages from the cuts he had gotten from the cacti that lined the trail that he had been following through the desert before he was caught.

I remember being profoundly moved by the intimacy of the moment, of having held in my hands feet which were maps of the journeys these men had suffered. I also recall being struck by the irony of it all. In that prison, on that morning, we had ritually recalled a moment when the social tables were turned, the honored guest acting as a servant during his last meal with his friends. Just a few hours after that meal, this innocent guest would be hauled up the Calvary Hill and then executed as a capital criminal, all of this in order to keep some sort of political peace.

The foot washing took about an hour. We finished with a benediction, a prayer and a hymn. One of the men came up to me and quietly thanked me for the service. “In this place, it is rare that I feel like I am treated as a human being. Today, though, I did feel that.”

We went our separate ways: the men back to their prison pods, and me into the freedom beyond the prison gates.

In that ICE detention center, on that morning, there were no tables turned. The men may have enjoyed a bit of spiritual solace, but nothing really changed. Most of them, indeed, would be sent back to the violent mess of their own cavalries, to the misery that had set them on their journey north to begin with. Their similarity to the plight of Jesus was keen, as the only reason that they were in this prison had everything to do with keeping political peace and next to nothing to do with any actual threats to our social order that these men could have posed.

The latest alarm in the national news is all about the threat to our social order that the children coming to our southern border represent.

The arrival of Republican senators and their usual boat ride along the Rio Grande (replete with 50 caliber machine guns) fulfilled my cynical expectation of politicians lining up for an easy photo opportunity that requires no sensible much less humane response to the actual moment at hand.

These news stories and the frantic responses by elected officials are peaking, however, during these weeks’ celebrations of Passover and Holy Week. I was reminded again of Biblical foot-washing and of Passover meals as a number of faith leaders from across the nation reached out over the past week to migrant advocates along the border. They quite simply, and generously, asked, “how might we help?” One pastor told me, “We can absolutely take care of these children, however many there are. I mean, this nation can come up with the resources to build aircraft carriers; children are much easier that that. What a great moment to be church!”

One group wants to send the families immediately back into danger; the other group wants to take care of them.

Thus as Senator Ted Cruz, cruising the Rio Grande in a Border Patrol boat, portrays the children as threats to national security, Methodist pastors from North Carolina, see the migrants as families in need of some warm clothing. Once again, the biblical obligation for hospitality runs up against the politician’s wish to terrorize constituents. This is not a fair fight, as most of the time fear and complacency trump courage. It is though, a just, proper and holy struggle, with the lives and well-being of innocent men and women and children in the balance.

Blessed Holy Week, chag pesach sameach.

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