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Wash one another’s feet

Liana met a young mother and her two children while visiting a remote village in Chiapas, Mexico, last March.

March 30, 2021

By Liana Gallant

It’s been almost a year now since I visited with the midwives in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico. Many of these women had at one time been supported in a project by PWRDF Kinal Antzetik, and as a retired nurse in the field of maternal-child health, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to be warmly welcomed into their tiny, isolated community.

My life was profoundly changed after meeting these women and memories have been flooding back while I’ve been going through my photos. COVID-19 still seemed very far away in the early days of March 2020, just a little blip on the international news when I was visiting Jijotol, north of the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas. I remember so clearly though the feeling in the pit of my stomach when one young man, a son of one of the midwives, expressed his anxiety that I might actually be bringing this strange new germ into their community! His home had no running water, but Internet he did have, and he was following the international news very carefully. My thoughts immediately swept back to the ways Western viruses had previously decimated Indigenous populations in his homeland. No wonder he was worried!

One of the special photos I treasure is of a young mother, carrying a heavy bundle of firewood on her back, a very young baby strapped in a sling on her chest and a toddler with a terrible face rash clinging to her side. If she was the same age as the other young mothers I met there, I guessed she’d probably be about 16, maybe 17 years old. Like the others, she looked much older though; life there is very hard on women. As soon as I met her, of course as a nurse, I wondered what I could possibly do to help the rash on the little boy’s face? I was pretty sure it was scabies, and probably all over the rest of his body too, just covered up with his ragged clothes.

I usually carry a small cake of hotel soap in my purse when I travel, so I dug it out. Then I remembered I had some Polysporin in the travel first-aid kit in my suitcase! Through the translator, I explained how to apply the ointment after washing with the soap. This young mother was so thankful, so very grateful that I felt embarrassed. It was such a small thing to give. Yes, “it was better than nothing,” but I felt really inadequate. Really, really inadequate.

When I asked if I could take a picture of her and her children, her face lit up with a shy but radiant smile and she nodded yes! I reached for my camera and that’s when I noticed her feet. It was Lent and suddenly our Anglican celebrations of Maundy Thursday popped into my mind. In the flash of a few seconds, I thought of the clean and prepared feet that are washed in our symbolic liturgies. I thought of the experiences I’d had of washing the feet of many patients over my years as nurse. Then I wondered what it would be like to wash her feet?

They were like no feet I’d seen ever seen before. Her young teenage skin was tough, cracked and filled with ground-in dirt, her toes already misshapen, the nails yellowed, torn and broken. She had obviously walked many miles. In her short life, she had obviously walked many, many miles. 

As I look back now, I continue to think about the feet that Jesus washed in the Gospels. They’d probably have been more like this young woman’s feet than the squeaky clean feet many of us present at our usual Maundy Thursday services. I’m thinking of his command to wash one another’s feet, to serve one another in the ways that he showed us.

Almost a year has passed since my visit into the mountains of southern Mexico, and questions about people’s feet still burn in my heart. Whose feet are easy to wash and whose feet are much harder? Washing the feet of another person can take many forms. When we serve each other in love, it can give us an intimate glimpse into another person’s life, perhaps even allowing us to see and understand more fully the difficult road they walk. Jesus is always asking us to keep our eyes wide open for ways to serve each other and to reach out with the same compassion that he shows to us. He invites us to watch carefully for ways to walk alongside each other, to generously love and serve each other, to wash each other’s feet. 

Liana Gallant is a member of the Ottawa PWRDF Working Group.

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