This speech was given by Dylan Haro at BMC’s luncheon during the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, July 5, 2010.
I’d like to tell you a story about feet. A few weeks ago I stepped off a plane in Boston to participate in a conference presented by the Fund for Theological Education (FTE*). The ecumenical worship services reflected the variety of the assembled traditions; there were roughly one hundred rising leaders from across the nation who were gathered for the conference. For the final worship service, people were welcome to wander the chapel and participate in an assortment of prayer / worship / communal activities. Other than coming together for communion at the conclusion of the service, one was welcome to do what they wanted, when they wanted. They call it “prayers around the cross.”
The chapel at Boston University looked like a mini-cathedral. For the first ten minutes I was the only one in the balcony, scoping out the scene. There were people singing, reading, writing, drawing… sitting, standing, kneeling, walking… praying in front of orthodox iconography, planting seeds, lighting candles… you name it – there was a station set up for it – and it was all happening at once.
As the only member of the Church of the Brethren there, I was excited to spot a foot-washing station. I wonder to my-self, ‘should I do it? Some Brethren aren’t comfortable with washing feet – and we do it twice a year – how might an Episcopalian or a Baptist, or a Methodist react? Na, it’s not a big deal.’ …But, I muster up some courage: I think, ‘Yes, I should do it, even though I didn’t have the chance to pre-wash my feet (like we all do before a Love Feast - mind you, I take a shower every morning, but this event was at the end of another long conference day). Yes, I should do it – not so I can receive my impending reciprocal foot-washing. And even if it doesn’t feel like a BIG DEAL, I should do it!
If you have had the opportunity to wash someone’s feet OR have had your feet washed, you understand the power of practicing humility and servant-hood, and you know the power of human touch – literal touch. And by washing someone’s feet that night, in Boston, I hoped I could share that same feeling. Little did I know how significant this act would be, or how much washing a new friend’s feet would transcend my intentions for the better.
I decide to ask Nick Sollom, an individual from my small group, someone who I had come to admire in the past few days in Boston. Nick askes, “Just one foot?” Having never heard that question before, I smile, “Both of ‘em.” Preparing to wash his feet, I think to my-self: This is how the Brethren do things! But this foot-washing station was cramped between the wall and a pew. There was no basin, but instead, a tiny bowl and a pitcher of cold water [tisk-tisk] – not what I expected. There were plenty of towels – I’ll give them that. But, other than the towels I thought all the power of the experience was diluted because it didn’t match what I expected – what I was so familiar and comfortable with …I thought: This isn’t how the Brethren do things.
I assumed Nick might not know the difference, so I proudly added my commentary. I look up at Nick, while washing his second foot: “You know, when us Brethren wash feet, we do so with warm water.” He nods. I continue, “And sometimes, it even smells all minty-n-stuff!” Nick Replies “Or like lavender.” It turns out Lutherans wash feet too! Suddenly, I’m so relieved to find out I’m not the only one at this conference who thinks washing feet with warm water and smelly stuff is a big deal. Afterward, we hug, put on our shoes and go our own ways for the rest of the service.
The next day, we have our last small group meeting. We are sharing words of affirmation that make each other feel all warm-and-fuzzy on the inside. During this time, Nick looks to me and says something that grips my heart: “Thank you for washing my feet…because no one has ever asked me before.” Nick was 17 and in the Catholic Church’s minor seminary when he came out. When he told the church he was gay, they told him they didn’t want him – that God didn’t want him. He spent 10 years away from church and severed from spirituality. He felt condemned and void of hope.
During those dark ten years he moved to New York City where he eventually met his partner. However, his partner was a Lutheran Pastor in a denomination [the ELCA] which wasn’t open and affirming until a just year ago. For the few years before that, Nick had to live in the shadows – pretend like he didn’t know his partner in public – especially not at church, where his partner could have been defrocked and excommunicated. Since his denomination became open and affirming this last year, Nick began pursuing the ordination process once again. To Nick, being asked to have his feet washed was a really big deal.
Sometimes I can be oblivious to what makes something a big deal. It wasn’t a major crisis when my mom and her partner came out, shortly after we moved to San Diego. It wasn’t a big deal for our family or for the church because the San Diego congregation was accepting and supportive - open and affirming. This allowed my mom to embrace the Brethren heritage she grew up with without concealing her sexual orientation. Both of my moms had the freedom to proclaim their sexual identity while maintaining their religious identity. Bing a part of two open and affirming churched has shaped my understanding of Church, God, Love, and my calling. An open and affirming congregation is obviously supportive to individuals who are LGBT, but we may forget the liberating impact it has to their family and friends and those who are silent in the shadows.
I didn’t anticipate how deeply impacted Nick would feel after I washed his feet [both of them]. Nick shared the story of his challenging journey with our small group early in the conference. In our contact after the conference he has expressed the significance of washing his feet as the Genesis of his healing with the Church. It only took a little courage on my part because it involved some risk. It may not have been a big risk, at worse an awkward moment (feet have a way of making things awkward). Even though it feels risky, and it feels like all you have is cold water and a tiny bowl, think of the impact you will have on people’s lives with a little courage, and how becoming Open and Affirming might transcend your intentions for the better.