Today I Washed Feet – Maundy Thursday in Ocean Beach

    The morning grey still hung over OB as I parked my car up the street from the Episcopal Center Church on Sunset Cliffs Blvd.  It was my first day of several much needed weeks off and I had made the mistake of responding to the Editordude’s request an hour earlier to cover the Maundy Thursday for the Needy at the Center.  Groggily, as I walked down the street, I saw several familiar faces reclined on the grass outside the sanctuary, and the end of a line of folk stretching out to the street.

    Ooops, I forgot my audience… what is Maundy Thursday you ask?

    “Maundy Thursday is observed during Holy Week on the Thursday before Easter. Also referred to as “Holy Thursday” in some Christian denominations, Maundy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper when Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before he was crucified. While different denominations observe Maundy Thursday in their own distinct ways, one important biblical event is a focus of Maundy Thursday solemnizations.

    “Before the Passover meal, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. By performing this lowly act of service, the Gospel tells us that Jesus, “showed them the full extent of his love.” (John 13:1)  By his example, Jesus demonstrated how Christians are to love one another through humble service. For this reason, many churches practice foot-washing ceremonies as a part of their Maundy Thursday services. Derived from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment,” Maundy refers to the commands Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper: to love with humility by serving one another and to remember his sacrifice. (source)

    My experience is in the Catholic Church, and in the past, the various parishes of the Catholic Church would choose 12 men from the parish for the priest to symbolically wash their feet.  This is still done in a number of more conservative parishes.  If you were to attend a Catholic Mass today, however, you will most likely find the entire congregation engaging in the foot washing as a part of the service.  It is a humbling and joyful experience.

    In Ocean Beach, there has been a slow and steadily growing inter-faith community in which the traditions, such as Maundy Thursday, have become focal points for action in the community, rather than for religious observation alone.  I was interested to see how the Inter-faith community was going to conduct such an event.

    I made my way through the crowd waiting to check-in at the front gate, identified myself to the organizers, and immediately latched on to volunteer Terry who led me through the process.  I am used to working in the homeless ministry, and what can appear to be abject mayhem to the untrained eye, is in actuality a relatively smooth running organic process, once you figure out the lay of the land.  This particular land was far more complex than I had experienced to date.  In fact, they had maps posted to find out where to go.

    Terry showed me how the folk coming through the gate initially checked in, the table staffed with several volunteers.  The folk had either pre-registered (290 had already) or they could register as a walk-in.  As I walked with Terry, a woman approached her who had pre-registered, but had not registered her children.  She made sure the woman and her children were properly registered for the next step in the process.

    After registration, the first stop was a meal. The hall was full and the meal appeared simple and filling, and as always, the coffee hot.  The day was turning out to be a warm one and several folk chose to take advantage of an al fresco meal in the patio as gentle guitar music and singing floated down from the balcony above.  While they ate, the registration form was placed with another set of volunteers who were shoe distributors.

    The meal complete, the person joined a line leading up to a small stage at one end of the hall.  Here, several racks of new shoes were set up.  As each person came to the head of the line, their card was pulled and another volunteer sought out the proper shoe size for him or her.

    Shoes obtained, the next step was voluntary.  If the person desired, he or she could have his or her feet washed before putting on new socks and shoes.  The volunteers would ask if they would like a prayer said while their feet were washed.

    But wait! That’s not all!

    While the washing of the feet was certainly the centerpiece of the day’s event, there were a variety of other services offered.  Our own Christine Schanes and her crack team of assistants were busy operating the identification clinic.  For those of us who feel naked without identification of some sort in our possession at all times, imagine life without one.  Now imagine if you are poor and have no identification.  You might be surprised to find, many of the basic services for survival are unavailable without identification, and forget about getting a job, or p.o. box to receive a disability or social security check.  Christine has been operating her clinic with Second Chance Ministries for some time now, and from the looks of things, she has no worries about getting new clients.

    Need a haircut?  Today a hairstylist was busy clipping hair and turning shaggy into presentable. He was pretty popular, and I did not want to interrupt.  The word you never want to hear your surgeon, tattoo artist or barber say is, “Ooops.”  So I watched respectively and snuck a photograph.

    How about a little oral hygiene and dental check-up? Upstairs, Rose, a dental hygienist and her assistant, Lisa, were giving folk the once over, providing tooth brushes and toothpaste with some suggestion about how to better take care of their teeth or, if need be, a referral.  Rose is a member St. Peter’s by the Sea Lutheran Church and Lisa a member of the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church.

    If you need a wound dressing changed or a simple check-up and referral, the nurses in the health clinic were available to assist.  Mindy, an R.N. from California State University, San Marcos, explained to me the clinic is conducted with five to ten volunteer nurses on Saturdays at the Episcopal Center.  They conduct evaluations, give referrals, some case management, and address mental health issues with a compassionate ear.

    I never made it to see the Veterinarian.  There was line and she (or he?) kept the door closed while examining the canine and feline patients.  I did speak with Amanda and her little ward, Charley.  She had just arrived from New Hampshire, traveling with her boyfriend.  She just wanted to make sure Charley was doing “okay.”  Joe was a bit more concerned.  His ward, Isaac, a big yellow Labrador had a wound on his flank.  Joe and Isaac waited patiently for their turn.

    The Veterans Administration had a table staffed by Cyndy and Melanie who work with homeless and near homeless veterans.  A five minute conversation will lead to a follow-up article regarding services available to this particular population.

    The final service I found was Alcoholic Anonymous.  Beth explained AA had a number of meetings weekly at the center, but it was the Harmony group which held meeting six days a week at 6:45 a.m. She told me between 15% – 20% of the participants were those who could be termed as “homeless.” And while hot coffee is a draw, Bill’s friends have served the community for some time.

    Still figuring out my bearings, I located Bishop James Mathes, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego for the past eight years.  He explained to me the Episcopal community in Ocean Beach was small, and the church was now referred to as Center Church, in which service to the community was the priority.  Father Brent Carey is the Episcopal priest who conducts services at the church.  While the community is small, it has a much larger service to the community with over 3000 service contacts a month.  He likes the idea of an inter-faith community, which is willing to forgo theological differences for a response to the call of service from the gospel.

    Bishop Mathes referred to the center as a model for other dioceses in the Episcopal Church, and this particular center was a “laboratory” for the church to determine what works, what does not, and how to make it work.  He has close family ties to someone on the street, suffering the pain of addiction, and considers what is being done at the Center, “a basic human need to payback of what has been given to us.”

    Then it was my turn.  At the foot washing station I met Sister Maria, a sister of the Religious of the Sacred Heart.  Slightly freckled, sparkling brown eyes and a smile which came from some other world, her spirituality gave me goose bumps, the good kind.  Together we washed Dave’s feet.  Dave is a bear of man who I know from our Tuesday night dinners.  He does not talk much and with his size, long hair and beard to the unfamiliar he can be a bit intimidating.  He sat on the concrete bench as we immersed his feet into plastic pan of warm, soapy water.  I gently massaged the soapy water over his feet, one of which was without a big toe, then dried them before applying lotion.  Complete, he said thank you, declined a prayer, and put on clean socks and shoes.

    As we cleaned up the station, I asked Sister Maria if she had her feet washed yet.  I guess I caught her by surprise, as if it had not even occurred to her.  She washed my feet, and I then washed hers.  The prayer she asked for while I washed her feet was beautifully simple.  She asked I pray those anxieties and fears which keep us all from our full potential be lifted, so we can all work to bring a peace to this world.

    So, Editordude, thank you.  I guess the Lord truly does work in some very mysterious ways, and through some odd choices of people.

    I end with a prayer to all of you who read this Easter missive.  I pray you are moved to experience a re-birth of compassion within your heart, and a knowledge even the smallest act of humbling yourself and serving another is greater and more courageous than any act of born of anger, hatred or intolerance.

    Peace be with you all, Jack