These days, religion often gets a bad rap. It’s an arrogant face of war, division and blame. But that’s certainly not the only face of faith. For the beauty of what it can be, see what is happening Friday nights in Portland, Ore.
By Tom Krattenmaker
PORTLAND, Ore. — Something radical is happening every Friday night where homeless people congregate downtown under the Burnside Bridge.
Car- and vanloads of Christian volunteers swoop in with sleeping bags and coats to protect their dispossessed friends against the raw, wet weather that has moved in. They dispense hot meals and set up stations for shaves and haircuts. While a few pull out guitars and strike up their Jesus-themed songs, a small number of the volunteers commit one of the more audacious acts of compassion and humility I have ever witnessed: They wash the homeless people’s feet.
Four folding chairs are set up in a row, each occupied by a downtrodden human being, his or her bare feet immersed in a tub of warm water. In front of each, kneeling on a pad, a volunteer gently scrubs away. Drying and powdering follow before the recipients are sent on their way, their feet clean and dry and swathed in a fresh pair of socks.
The spirit of the season? This is it.
“I can’t find the words to describe how good that felt,” one beneficiary says as he moves off, smiling broadly.
The night I observed this ritual, perhaps 100 homeless women and men were on hand, as well as a similar number of volunteers, deployed by an inter-denominational evangelical organization called Bridgetown Ministries. For more than three years, the group has been performing “Night Strike,” in addition to other programs aimed at serving disadvantaged youth and Portland’s less fortunate. Their motto, as printed on the T-shirt worn by ministry leader Marshall Snider, captures the ministry’s philosophy in five simple words: “Get out of the box.”
Washing the feet of society’s outcasts might be as far out of the box as you can get. This work has practical importance, of course; people who can’t keep their feet clean and dry end up suffering extreme discomfort or worse. But there’s more to it than that. What Bridgetown Ministries does on Friday nights is highly biblical.
Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, talks about “the least of these,” as in, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for (God).” Ministry leader Snider had invoked that very passage while preparing the volunteers back at ministry headquarters earlier in the evening. “When you go out there tonight,” Snider told them, “I want you to look for Jesus. You might see him in the eyes of a drunk person, a homeless person.”
Feet-washing has resonance with a revealing New Testament passage. In Luke, a woman “who had lived a sinful life” washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair and pours perfume on them, upsetting the self-righteous Pharisee who is hosting Jesus and who finds the woman unworthy of Jesus’ company. Jesus praises the woman for her faith and forgives her sins.
Then there are the sheer logistics: Washing someone’s feet is an act best performed while kneeling. Given the washer’s position, and the unpleasant appearance and odor of a homeless person’s feet, it’s hard to imagine an act more humbling.
Looking for Jesus in the eyes of a homeless person. Contrast that with a different, and decidedly less inspiring, face of faith more often on display in the media and public square. Leaders of the Christian Right continue to scapegoat gays and lesbians and emphasize other wedge issues, with little to say publicly about the “least of these,” unless they happen to be as-yet unborn. A notorious, high-profile few seize disasters such as Hurricane Katrina not to emphasize compassion but to suggest that the victims in some sense had it coming because of their sinful ways. The unfortunate tendency is hardly confined to Christianity. In Iraq, religious differences are fueling rising levels of bloodshed between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Civilians are being killed by the hundreds — in the name of religion?
These ugly, destructive appearances of religion make it tempting to accept the arguments of atheist writers such as Sam Harris, who asserts that religious faith has become a dangerous force that must be eradicated if the world is to overcome its violent divisions and intractable problems. Harris writes in his recent book Letter to a Christian Nation that only when Christianity, Judaism and Islam are relics of the past “will we stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”
If Harris were attacking fundamentalism rather than the broad sweep of monotheistic religion, I’d be with him 100%. But it’s hard to indict all religion when you see the way faith manifests under the Burnside Bridge. The features of hard-edged Christianity that many find repellant — condemnation, exclusivity, belligerence — are absent at Night Strike. Bridgetown Ministries and its dozens of volunteers aren’t vetting the moral worthiness of the homeless people whose hair they cut, bodies they clothe and feet they wash. They know some might be drunk and some on drugs. Are they homeless because they’re lazy? Do they deserve this care? The questions are utterly irrelevant from the perspective of the ministry’s radical compassion. As Snider puts it, “We’re just out there to love on people.”
If only we could see this form of faith more often in our highly charged public arena. No doubt, the bad name borne by Christianity in some quarters is partly the fault of the media for highlighting conflict and inflammatory rhetoric and for shying away from the thousands of acts of Christian decency all around us. But most of the blame must be laid at the feet of the loudest and most visible champions of the Christian Right. Are those who project the divisive and arrogant side of religion willing to kneel down and cleanse the feet of the homeless?
Perhaps what happens Friday nights under the Burnside Bridge can be a reminder. While the fighting over religion drags on, let’s remember that many, many people around the world — some who count themselves among the true believers, some who don’t — are living up to the religious ideal. They’re helping the needy, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, even washing their feet.
My hope for Christmas is that the radical love of people such as Marshall Snider comes to be known as the true and predominant expression of religious faith — and that it infects our whole society, people religious and otherwise. Imagine the changes that might come about if that were to happen. Imagine what the world might then become.
Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He is working on a book about the Christianization of professional sports.
The sad part about that article is that most churches will see that as revolutionary and amazing, but that is what we as the Church should be doing. That is exactly what the Church has been commanded to do since the Old Testament, but we have failed to do it! And that is the sad reality of the Church in America today.
I really hope that churches read this and don’t just think about what a feel good story it is, but that they begin to look for ways in their community where they can do this. It should challenge us and make us think and cause us to act.