As a young man I volunteered with a United Way agency. My job was to call an assigned elderly shut-in every day and occasionally visit him. I was on my third assignment, which happened to be an elderly black man named Joe.
Joe lived in The Projects in central Houston, and I tried to pay him a visit several times a month – besides my regular phone calls to him. Joe was semi bed-ridden but he had a walker and a wheelchair which allowed him, with some effort, to move around his tiny apartment. Joe was a devout Christian and our conversations almost always centered on the Bible and our shared faith. He would often become really excited and begin preaching to me. I really enjoyed it when he did. Unfortunately his Bible knowledge was all from memory as his eye-sight had, over time, become very poor and he couldn’t really read much anymore. I eventually helped him to acquire an audio version of the Bible which he listened to every day.
One such visit was early during Holy Week leading up to Easter. During our time together he broke character a bit and started complaining about his feet. He grumbled that even though he could stand in the shower with his walker; he just couldn’t reach nor stoop down to clean his own feet. I was not sure how to respond except to provide a few lame ideas as to how he might solve this problem. We prayed together and I left.
Over the next day or so it occurred to me that I should visit him again soon and actually wash his feet. He was an octogenarian at the time, and his feet were indeed dirty and down-right gnarly. I was not in any way looking forward to this job!
But I returned on the Thursday before Easter with a tub; a brush; a cloth; a towel and some soap. I began to wash his un-kept feet as he sat on the side of his bed. Then Joe started to weep.
“What’s the matter Joe?” I asked.
“Misser Tom,” he replied. “I’ve lived for a long time and I never thought I would see the day when a white man would wash my feet!” We then wept together.
When I left his place, I headed directly to my home Church, which in those days happened to be Episcopal. That evening there was a special Holy Week service that I had scheduled myself to attend. I was fairly new there, and in my recent return to a liturgical style Church, I had forgotten what a Maundy Thursday service was really all about. Still stunned by the events at Joe’s apartment, I walked in and sat down and very soon realized that Maundy Thursday was celebrated by most liturgical style Churches with a ceremonial foot washing. “Oh my God”, I thought. I obviously had forgotten what Maundy Thursday meant, but God evidently did not!