“That guy, Jesus, did something like this.”
I rolled a new pair of socks gently over the man’s ankles and offered him another clean pair for the road. As I gave his foot one last tender squeeze, I said a quiet prayer for him. It was always how I ended my massages.
During my graduate studies, my pastoral education brought me to a long-term volunteer commitment at the Care Through Institute in San Francisco. The organization’s mission is simple: “to be present with human suffering and promote healing through human connection. We do this by serving in the spirit of compassion, non-judgment, and love.” Care Through Touch volunteers can be found in a variety of settings: shelters, day-centers and Single-Room Occupancy hotels (SROs) offering chair massages. Many of my fellow volunteers went on to careers in hospital chaplaincy.
The physical effects of massage have always been secondary to the larger symbolism that asserts the God-given dignity of each of the individuals being served, many of whom are plagued by homelessness, addiction, mental illness, racism or disability. One of the day-centers where I volunteered was a safe haven for sex workers. These women had been so exploited and traumatized that basic human touch, such as the squeeze of the shoulder, can feel weaponized. If after months of building quiet trust, one of the women accepted the offer for a massage, the moment always felt graced.
Every year on Holy Thursday, Care Through Touch offers a foot-massage event in the San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The Tenderloin is an area of 50 square blocks, buffeted on other sides by extremely expensive real estate and high-end shopping. The neighborhood has resisted gentrification, maintaining a long-standing reputation for crime, homelessness and sex work. For low-income families struggling in one of the wealthiest cities in the country, it is one of the last few neighborhoods where rent may be affordable.
Foot massages in the Tenderloin were often challenging. Inadequate shoes and miles of walking-on-concrete could take their toll. We would offer foot-washing before the massage and would bring clean bandages and antibacterial lotion for sores and scrapes. Undoubtedly, these feet were not unlike those of Jesus’ disciples, caked with the dust and grit from traveling endless miles in sandals.
Paul is a military-veteran. Due to a spinal injury during his last month in Vietnam, he was left a paraplegic. Bound to a wheelchair and facing administrative challenges in receiving his V.A. benefits, Paul struggled to work and eventually became chronically homeless. The first time I saw him down the line waiting patiently for a chair massage, I grew nervous about my nascent massage skills and hoped that one of the more experienced volunteers would serve him. When it became apparent that we would be assigned together, I sent a worried glance to my supervisor. She barely glanced up, “Remember why you’re here.” I took a deep breath and called on the Holy Spirit. After the massage was over, Paul gingerly reached for my hand. I noticed that his eyes were moistened with tears.
“That is the first time I have been touched by another person in three years. It felt good.”
Paul became one of my “regulars.” When he waited for me on one such Holy Thursday, I told him that I had come prepared for foot massages not the regular chair massages. “It okay, I’ll take a foot massage.”
“Can you even feel your feet?” I asked gently.
“Nope, but being with you will be enough.”
The Holy Thursday liturgies in our parishes are beautiful remembrances of Jesus’ servant leadership. Yet after my Holy Thursdays in the Tenderloin, I cannot help but reflect on how sanitized the ritual can feel – white albs, fresh water, and already-clean feet. In my own spirituality journey, I long to be jolted out of my own sense of comfort and familiarity. I long to return to the streets, literally and metaphorically.
It was these moments, these Holy Thursdays, where perceived boundaries and expectations melted away. Serving one another is ultimately about mutuality. This is why Jesus crossed so many social and religious barriers to meet those on the margins of society.
Being with Jesus will be enough. Seeing the Jesus in each other has the power to heal all that divides us. There is no us and no them. Only love.