For many homeless people, life on the streets is hard on the feet.
Yet the Friday before Easter I witnessed a group of religious volunteers here doing something that I never thought imaginable—washing those feet and caring for them.
Nearly 2,000 of Miami’s homeless shuffled through the three campuses of the Miami Rescue Mission and its Broward Outreach Centers on Good Friday for the group’s annual “Thanksgiving in April,” a block party open to the more than 8,000 people who are homeless here.
Those who stopped by were offered a free meal, a haircut, a shower, and live entertainment.
Students at Barry University, in Miami Shores, who are taking podiatry courses, were recruited by the mission to provide basic foot care such as nail clipping and filing; homeless people also received socks and shoes that were donated by the Broward County sherriff’s office.
At the mission’s outposts in Pompano Beach and Hollywood, which receive state government money, the services come no-strings-attached. But at its main campus in Miami’s Little Haiti district, which receives all of its money from private sources, there was a religious catch.
Before they could get to the podiatry service, homeless people had to have their feet washed by Christian volunteers, a custom taken from the story of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper as a symbol of his humility.
Homeless men and women sat in chairs as volunteers from local churches placed their feet in plastic basins, ran warm water over them, scrubbed them with brushes, and then dried them. Some of the volunteers said prayers for the people they washed, some prayed with them, and others just engaged them in conversation.
As she waited for her turn to wash her first pair of feet, Jane Haywood, a volunteer from the nearby Granada Presbyterian Church, said she was excited and nervous about the experience but not scared by it.
“It is an incredible experience, just the idea of being in that position, of being able to help someone in that way,” Ms. Haywood said. “It is what Christ did for me by humbling himself to be a servant to serve so that I can live.”
Caring for the feet of the homeless is a necessary service, said Marilyn Brummitt, the mission’s director of community development. “For the homeless, if you are walking on the streets and you walk, walk, walk, what do you think is the most important part of your body?”
Some, like a man who identified himself as Theo, went through the religious ceremony simply to get the podiatry care.
“It’s not a religious thing for me, but I thought about Jesus getting it. I know what it represents,” said Theo, who has been homeless for five years. “What does it mean to me? I was mainly trying to get some clean socks and a pair of them shoes.”
Others, like Joe Huff, 52, who has lived on Miami’s streets for two years, raised their hands in prayer as they were washed.
“It’s relaxing. It’s soothing,” he said after a volunteer named Christa washed his feet. “When you are out on the street, you can’t always shower every night, so you have to take care of your toes. Last year my feet got so bad—they scratched and I was digging them to the bone—I couldn’t walk.”
But strategically, the washing is a central part of the street fair, because it helps the homeless form bonds with people who can potentially help them, according to the mission’s communication’s manager, Casey Angel.
“It is nice for people to come out and have a meal and shower and a free haircut,” Mr. Angel said. “But [the foot washing] really means much more because it is a one-on-one connection.”
At each street fair, people can apply for a rehabilitative program to help them get clean, sober, and psychologically stable and then to provide them with job training and placement. Nearly all of those who go through the foot-washing ceremony apply, Mr. Angel said.
But Ms. Brummitt said that when she introduced the foot-washing program five years ago, she was met with skepticism—both from homeless people wary of others touching a sensitive part of their bodies and from volunteers.
“I didn’t have any feet washers that year. I actually appealed in the chapel during orientation for volunteers,” she recalled of the first attempt to run the ceremony. “I could have heard a pin drop. Nobody volunteered.”
Now groups argue over who will get to perform washing duties.