The custom of washing another’s feet was embedded in the cultures of ancient civilizations as an act of hospitality and necessary cleanliness. For obvious reasons, the health of one’s feet can judge the wellbeing of the body.
For those who live outside, disease and fungus are a constant threat in the Northwest winter. Calluses erupt from always walking and wearing shoes. Sores develop and nails may become ingrown.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper, as an act of humility and gesture of service. Every Wednesday morning from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., volunteers emulate this act by caring for the feet of those in need in the basement of Portland’s Downtown Chapel.
Pink towels form a pathway between two rows of facing chairs where the soaking takes place and three nurses’ stations where the real work happens. The room smells fresh and clean, everyone seems happy, relaxed.
“Washing a person’s feet puts you truly below them, it is an act of kindness with much human symbolism,” says Andrew Noethe, pastoral associate at Downtown Chapel. “Your perspective of a person changes.”
The foot care program began with a parishioner and his wife who asked church staff if they could wash people’s feet as Jesus did. Because they were not health care providers, only a washing was offered. Today, a team of registered nurses volunteer medical care while others handle filling sterilized tubs with fresh soapy water for the initial soak.
Sharon Christenson has been volunteering her time and services as an RN for almost six years. She originally came with an interest in foot care to keep busy after her retirement. In the beginning she traded weeks with the program’s founding couple. When they could no longer volunteer, she says, she began coming every week.
Sharon is a small, older woman with glasses and a big smile. Pretty blue earrings bob as she talks, simultaneously grating the calluses off an elderly diabetic man’s left foot.“I feel blessed to provide a service you can’t get anywhere else with RN expertise,” she says.
Diabetics in particular require attentive foot care. Nerve problems, dryness, and poor circulation can all cause permanent damage. Calluses and ulcers are more likely to occur, and if left untreated may turn into open sores.
Clifford Earl has been coming since last November, after learning of the program from other people living on the streets. He is homeless and diabetic, and although he says he doesn’t come as much in the summer he does attend regularly year round.
“Everyone here is very nice,” he says. He is grateful and smiling as he sits down in front of Sharon. “I like the way they treat me.
“When you’re homeless,” he says, “you’re on your feet all day.”
Pat Guss, also a registered nurse, says her desire to do foot care was somewhat accidental. While volunteering at another church handing out sack lunches, she says she kept seeing people limping.
In the winter of 2006, she took part in Portland’s Project Homeless Connect, a one-day outreach event where volunteers and local organizations offered free support services, including medical attention, haircuts, and veterinary care for pets, for the poor and homeless.
Impressed by the list of services offered, Pat was especially intrigued by the idea of extensive podiatry.
“I went down with my clippers and said ‘I’m here to do foot care,’” she says. “I met Sharon, and bothered her until I got in.”
Ann Fleming, another RN, has been volunteering since the summer, when she took a foot care clinic at Portland Community College and met Sharon.
“In the long run,” Fleming says, “I wanted to do something in nursing that would let me be one-on-one with people.”
She smiles at the man whose feet she is massaging with cocoa butter lotion. He is shy.
“Sharon and Pat are very helpful,” she says. “It’s a great place to meet and talk to people. People are really caring and genuine (at Downtown Chapel). It’s a wonderful mission.”
Elaine Bergman agrees. An energetic volunteer, Elaine is kept busy filling, emptying and sterilizing the tubs and plug-in massagers in which recipients soak their feet. A church volunteer since January, she began giving her time at the encouragement of her son.
“He’s slowly brought the whole family,” she says, grinning. “This place is like my family’s second home.”
Elaine likes foot care the best. “I have to beg to come here,” she says.
Fr. Ronald Raab, associate pastor at the Chapel, says that the many foot care volunteers and their ministry “teaches us all how to sit at the feet of people in need.”
“In the midst of dirty water and bleached-white towels, the nurses and volunteers listen to the stories of strangers and friends and view their faces with care and understanding,” Raab says.
A regular, who wished to remain anonymous, did not make it in time to get his feet seen at one of the nurses stations, but he happily takes the soak Elaine offers. Without insurance for foot care, he says the program is a great help.
Downtown Chapel, he says, is a “good place to be.”
“(The foot care) makes me feel better,” he says. “Even a soaking helps.”