Chris Kidder took off his shoes and socks inside Portland’s Preble Street social services center, slipped his tired feet into a plastic tub of warm, soapy water and smiled. Sitting opposite Kidder a few feet away, the Rev. Michael Seavey smiled right back.
"Oh my God," said Kidder, 31. "I’m in heaven."
He wasn’t the only one.
Up and down the row of chairs Thursday morning, homeless men and women removed their footwear, tentatively dipped their toes, then their heels and then their ankles into the frothy bubbles. It was, to a man and women, a moment of pure bliss.
"That was wonderful," beamed Erika Franklin, 34, after Dick Rasner, a deacon at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Luke, washed and dried her feet, rubbed them with aloe lotion, sprinkled on some foot powder and handed her a new pair of white cotton socks. "He did a great job. Probably as good as Jesus did originally. Maybe better!"
For many, Holy Thursday marks the start of the most sacred four days on the Christian calendar.
It’s the day, according to the Gospel of John, that Jesus broke bread for the last time with his 12 apostles. Then, much to their astonishment, he washed each of their feet, instructing them, "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet."
Ancient history, to be sure. Yet for Seavey, the parochial vicar at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, it’s a command that’s as relevant today as it was two millennia ago.
"There’s a whole panorama of what this means – symbolically and literally," Seavey said between washings. "It’s been a dream of mine to do this."
As it has for the dozen or so other clergy from various faiths who gathered first at Preble Street and later in Monument Square to send a simple message to this oh-so-secular world: No matter what you believe in (or not), no matter what your story, everyone could use a good foot bath.
It started last year when Seavey, who got the idea while attending a conference, performed a washing of the feet at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for the many immigrants and refugees in his congregation. It was his way of saying to anyone who has suffered life’s many hardships, "Just come. We don’t ask questions. Just come, take off your shoes and we’ll wash your feet."
This year, in an effort to take the gesture out of the sanctuary and into the streets, Seavey began meeting with St. Luke’s Rasner, pastor Carolyn Lambert from Woodford’s Congregational Church and a handful of other spiritual leaders. Their mission: Make the foot-washing ritual not only more ecumenical, but also more accessible to those who may not be regular churchgoers.
They approached Preble Street, where scores of Portland area homeless people gather each morning. There, much to their pleasant surprise, they learned that Thursday was already the day for a "foot clinic" put on by University of Southern Maine nursing instructor Susan Clement and her cadre of five nursing students.
"What’s nice about it is you have this opportunity to connect," Clement said as her students ferried in a steady supply of fresh water and towels and summoned her for the occasional consult. "For the clergy, the main impetus is Holy Week. Our reason for doing it is to provide nursing care."
Which, when it comes to the feet, is critical to surviving life on the streets.
"Being homeless, you’re on your feet all day long," said Donna Yellen, chief program officer for Preble Street. "You’re walking from one shelter to another, you’re standing in soup kitchen lines, you’re waiting in line for a shower, you’re waiting in line to get your mail, you’re even walking around for your own safety – lots of homeless people move from place to place all day so they’re not targeted. Some people walk for miles every day."
Kidder, who grew up in the Down East town of Sullivan, came to Portland from Bangor just over a month ago in search of a restaurant job. (He’s already filled out 45 applications and had a stack of others in his coat pocket.) He said he walked the entire 140-mile journey down Route 1 with a backpack – making him especially appreciative of the new socks presented to him by Seavey.
"Around here," Kidder said, "new socks are gold."
Echoed an exultant Marla Palau, who sleeps at the Oxford Street women’s shelter and will turn 39 on Easter Sunday, "I’ve got new socks, comfortable socks. And I’ve got new feet now!"
A year ago around this time, a newly inaugurated Pope Francis shocked many in his own flock by washing the feet of 12 young people, including two women and two Muslims. The conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church insisted that the ritual should be limited only to men – just as Jesus did.
The pope continued his break from tradition Thursday in Rome, where the Vatican reported that he washed the feet of "12 disabled people of different ages, ethnicities and religious confessions."
"Francis is right," Seavey said, as Preble Street bustled with the poor and downtrodden. "This is what it’s all about."
And then some.
Thursday at noon, a larger group of clergy descended on Monument Square – with propane heaters, no less – to wash the feet of anyone who felt the urge.
David and Mariam Nzeme, originally from South Sudan, came all the way from their home in Westbrook with their daughter, Viana, and David’s mother, Maryann Peter. Why, with the temperature stuck at 46 degrees and the wind blowing hard off the ocean, would they do such a thing?
"Because I believe in God," replied Mariam, who works in the housekeeping department at Maine Medical Center. "If it’s not for God, I’m not standing here."
Kris Minister, a communicant at St. Luke’s, came down from her home on Munjoy Hill not just to get her feet washed, but to send a message.
"I came from poverty," Minister said. "I’ve transcended many levels of class in my life, but I remember what it’s like to be pitied."
Don’t get her wrong – Minister’s heart goes out to the disenfranchised as much as anyone else’s. It’s just that in this imperfect world, she thinks we all could stand a good scrubbing – inside and out – from time to time.
"It’s for all of us," Minister said as she left the square with a little more spring in her step. "We all need this cleansing."