By Erin Steiner, FC 17 Costa Rica
Growing up, my parents always challenged us to “take something on” for Lent, rather than solely giving up sweets or television. Usually, it was a gentle nudge for my brother and me to not fight so much and be kinder to each other. This Lenten season, I tried to broaden this sentiment and focused on a challenge from Pope Francis to fast from indifference– to spend less time on my phone, or running through my mental to do list, and put my energy towards engaging with and actively listening to those around me. Some days were easier than others, but what I found was an awareness, a reality check for my moments of selfishness, and a slow but steady formation of the heart.
During Holy Week, a particularly important time of the year here in Costa Rica, the men at my work site (Hogar El Buen Samaritano aka the Good Samaritan Home, a home for men who were previously living on the streets) were invited by a local parish to participate in the washing of the feet ceremony on Holy Thursday. Twelve of our residents were to have their feet washed by the priest during the mass, representing Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. In order to prepare for this special event, I and another volunteer were given the task of “pedicures” for the guys so that their feet would be ready for the ceremony. I was feeling pretty good about finishing up our task, but as I was cutting the nails of the final resident, one of his toenails, infected with fungus, came flying at me and hit me in the face. He looked at me and said, “that was pretty gross,” I agreed and we laughed as I finished cutting his nails. It was so beautiful to see our residents recognized during mass as important members of the local community, as people worthy of our compassion and love.
This small moment of literally washing the feet of others during Holy Week called me to reflect on how I would carry this fasting from indifference beyond the Lenten season…how my faith might become a bigger part of my day to day life, how I could continue this formation of the heart after my year of service with FrancisCorps ends.
One of my favorite books, Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller, provides a non-religious perspective to Christian spirituality. Something he wrote that has forever stuck with me is, “Love people simply because they exist.” Regardless of your religious beliefs, as human beings we are called to seek the human dignity of others. To wash the feet of one another. To awake from our indifference and take action. To do what we can with what we have. To accompany one another and gently rub away the dirt and dried blood from the feet of those we meet. When we wash the feet of another, we hold in our hands the burdens they carry– poverty, mental illness, abandonment, addiction, loneliness. We are called to let go of our preconceived judgments and love each person for exactly who they are in any given moment, without asking ourselves if our flawed judgment deems them “worthy”.
In this year of working with the homeless population of Alajuela, I have witnessed many people make snap judgments about the men I work with. Blaming them for their situation, ignoring the difficulties of their childhoods or the way in which the system has failed them, assuming that they are lazy, or that relapse is solely a rational choice, unaffiliated with mental illness. In what I have learned this year, homelessness is a complicated, intersectional problem requiring an even more complicated and multifaceted solution. While we work for systemic change, I believe that it is essential to focus on the human faces affected by these injustices…that people living on the streets are human beings, and no person deserves to eat out of a garbage can, or walk around covered in feces.
As Thomas Merton wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” In choosing to wash the feet of those we encounter, particularly those marginalized by society, we meet one another in a vulnerable place. We choose to demonstrate compassion for others, right there, simply because they exist. We have the chance to see our own humanity reflected in one another, our shared feelings of loneliness, insecurity, joy, and perhaps most importantly, the feeling of mattering. Not because we have accomplished something great, or because we are beautiful, or wealthy, or intelligent. But mattering simply because we exist.
Serving one another in this way can be done through volunteer work, but more significantly it can invade every part of our lives. Service means integrating the washing of the feet into our every interaction. It is hidden in the small, day to day moments, the ones that no one else may seem to notice. The moments in which we choose kindness and compassion over judgment and self-righteousness. We serve when we avoid gossiping about the neighbor or family member we don’t get along with, when we reach out to the friend we know is struggling, or when we see the person living on the street and acknowledge their human presence rather than glancing away at our phones.
So I return to my Lenten promise of fasting from indifference. We are not called to this kind of reflection and personal growth only during Lent, or Holy Week, or the Easter season, but rather 365 days a year. What good does 40 days of fasting and prayer do if it does not change our hearts to be more Christ-like, more in touch with our shared humanity? If we do not continue the formation of our heart and character beyond this liturgical season, in order to be better members of a global community? Certainly, we will fail in this endeavor countless times. We will fall to indifference and selfishness because we are human. But our merciful God only asks that we get up, stay humble, and keep pursuing the truth that only a life of service can bring. That we challenge ourselves to understand the identities of our brothers and sisters, to live in solidarity with one another. As the Jesuits would say, not for our glory but for the greater glory of God.