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The Eclectic Pen - Clean Feet and the Spirit at White Oak

By: Karen G. (karen-wnc)  
Date Submitted: 3/9/2008
Last Updated: 3/9/2008
Genre: Literature & Fiction » Essays & Correspondence
Words: 1,383

  Upper White Oak Freewill Baptist Church is a small congregation with perhaps 40-45 people attending on a good day. Services are held in Celo, North Carolina, in an old church house rented from a community member. There is much work that needs to be done on the white-sided building. Some of the windows are cracked and some must be held open with wooden braces in the heat of summer, when the air is heavy and thick. The floor slants ever-so-slightly from the door, down the aisle, and to the alter. It seems as if the structure itself is drawing members to come and repent.

With time and effort, the building could most certainly be brought up-to-date. Yet, it is the old-time feel and the members’ insistence upon walking in the “old path” which makes Upper White Oak so endearing. There is no set schedule or timeline to follow here. The only aim is to be lead by the Spirit. This is my home church; it is where I learned a valuable lesson, and where I took part in one of the most humbling services of my life.

I still remember how my heart pounded as I pulled into the small, graveled parking area that night and turned off the engine of my 97’ Ford Escort wagon, affectionately called Griselda the granny wagon. I can also still feel the anxiety that had settled itself into my mind since early that morning. It was a warm Sunday evening in the fall of 2006. I had only recently become a member of the church after being baptized in the cool, clear waters of Yancey County’s South Toe River in August of the same year.

There were only four concrete steps to climb before reaching the covered porch. Two wooden benches, their gray paint long worn away, flanked the only door to the church. A long, thick rope, which was used to ring the church bell, dangled from an opening in the ceiling. As I climbed those few steps leading up to the covered porch, I felt the knot in my stomach tightening, threatening to send me back to my car in a hurry to get out of this strange new atmosphere.

The pastor had announced during the morning service that there would be a communion/foot-washing service held during the evening service. I had attended communion services before and had enjoyed them. This foot-washing thing, however, was the proverbial horse of a different color.

I suppose it could seem funny to wonder if one’s feet are clean enough when the purpose of the event seems to indeed be the cleaning of one’s feet. That was one of the main thoughts running through my mind at the time, however. Another pertained to the fact that I had no idea what the agenda included at a foot-washing. “Surely,” I thought, “the men won’t be involved in washing the women’s feet.” I couldn’t abide the thought of having these men, who I admired and had so much confidence in, handling my feet. Being a single woman, with no husband to lead my family, I looked to the men of the church for direction and advice. It was unsettling enough to realize that the women of my new church would be involved.

As the service began, the preacher’s wife took her seat at the piano and we sang some hymns to open. Afterwards, the preacher began to explain the seriousness of participating in communion. It is more than just a ritual to perform. It is a symbolization of the spiritual union of one with Christ. The preacher read from I Corinthians 11.

27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.

We were encouraged to examine our relationship with God to determine if we felt we were able to participate. Soon, the communion portion of the service was completed and it was time to carry out the foot washing.

In John 13 we read that after Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he girded himself with a towel and washed his disciples’ feet. When Jesus came to Peter, he was astonished that Jesus would want to wash his feet. After all, Peter was only a servant to the Lord. He said “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” For Jesus, the Son of God, to humble Himself by bowing at the feet of his friends and brethren was no doubt shocking. Christ explained to Peter, however, that “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” It is His example that we would be following during this service.

I felt some small sense of relief when the pastor asked the men to assemble on one side of the church, and the women on the other. “At least only the women will be looking at my feet,” I thought. We gathered on the right-hand side of the building, on the first couple of pews. The old piano, its dark wood finish shining, sat against the wall on our right. I hesitantly slipped my sandals off and discreetly rubbed my feet on the rough carpet, hoping to get rid of any dust or dirt that I might have gathered in the dusty parking area. I sat down and just observed as the praying began.

One by one, the women sat on the front pew and slipped their feet, one at a time, into the basin. The basin was actually a big stainless steel bowl, the kind you see used in institutional kitchens. I watched as groups of three or four gathered in around the basin and dipped their hands into the warm water. They began to pray as they used their cupped hands to pour water over the foot and ankle of whoever was currently on the front pew. When they were finished praying, the wet feet were tenderly wiped dry with a thick, white towel in a way that clearly conveyed the affection shared between these sisters in Christ.

My senses overwhelmed me as I watched the ritual. I could feel the roughness of the carpeting as my toes were nervously folded under my feet over and over. Someone’s perfume was carried on the breeze made by the ceiling fans. The murmur of prayer from the left side of the church, where the men were congregated, was quickly becoming louder as the prayers became more intense. I watched as the women prayed with fervor, their emotion evident on their faces. I felt my heart beating faster as I was overwhelmed with my own emotions. I knew the Spirit was present and leading me to join in.

I knelt on the floor and felt privileged as I washed the feet of some of the women who I looked up to so much, one of which was my own younger sister. I earnestly began praying for each lady, thanking God for every one and asking Him to bless them in His own way. There was a great atmosphere of love, thankfulness and humility in the room. Soon, it was my turn to be washed.

Tears were flowing as I slipped first one foot, then the other, into the basin of water. I could not contain my emotion as each of the women poured water over my feet and offered up prayers on my behalf. I could scarcely believe that I was valued enough to warrant this much love and prayer. I was humbled because I knew that as a human, with my many faults and failures, I did not deserve it. At this point, I truly felt that I was a member of this church family.

As the service ended and we prepared to go home, I felt overwhelmed. I had discovered that it is important to reserve judgment about something that is different until I’ve actually experienced it. I know that I certainly thought the idea of having the women of my new church wash my feet, while praying on my behalf, was one of the craziest things I had ever heard of. By submitting myself to the experience, however, I opened the door to something that would come to be meaningful and forever cherished in my memory.

The Eclectic Pen » All Stories by Karen G. (karen-wnc)

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Claudia (BrokenWing) - 3/10/2008 12:25 PM ET
I'm not generally very religious, yet this story touched me. Thanks so much for sharing. This is an interesting and unique custom/practice and would NEVER EVER happen in the type of church I'm accustomed to.
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