This post is a reflection from the March 2011 trip I took to India through North Park University with Truthseekers International. If you are unaware of Truthseekers’ Footwashing Ministry, this may seem like a rather odd story.
During our first day-and-a-half in New Delhi, I was free from even the slightest tremble of culture shock. The cityscape seemed liked a remix of Tijuana, Athens, and Devon Avenue (the Indo-Pak street north of campus). At best, it felt walking into a three-dimensional National Geographic. Some of those in the group had never left America before, so, as the seasoned veteran to traveling I thought I was, I spent these first few moments helping the rookies process the sights and sounds.
We only had a week to get stuff done, so there was no time to waste in Delhi. We woke up early on Tuesday morning and piled onto the bus that would be our ride for our excursion out of the city. The Delhi sprawl took what felt like hours to get out of, but eventually we got past the slums and into the more rural countryside of Uttar Pradesh.
Indian economics are all about practicality, even at the expense of efficiency. Commerce thrives along much of the highway shoulder, and every moment the driver was negotiating between oncoming traffic and potholes, rickshaws and merchants. Because of the crowds, our bus often was slowed; because our bus was slowed, the crowds were able to peer into the windows and see the vehicle chock full of Westerners. Often we would catch a street-merchant’s eye, and he would smile and wave his hands, soon followed by all the men and some women that were by him. In this setting, void of tourism and foreign investment, we Americans were a spectacle. Not just a rarity, but a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
On our pale skin, the limelight burnt stronger than the sunlight.
We arrived in Ambedkar Park in Aligarh to a low-caste crowd of hundreds. Heads turned backward to watch the Americans walk through the sea of faces, all draped in the colorful fabrics of India. In front, a long table was set up where we took our seats. (I sat off to the side, right by the kids. Even though I could not leave my seat to interact with them, my inner camp counselor emerged as I started to play with them through making faces and other goofy gestures. Our fun was cut short when both the kids and I were scolded for not paying attention when the speaker took the mike.)
The next hour or so consisted of some worship and then some speaking. Messages were delivered both by area political figures and the Americans (translated, of course). But it was what happened afterwards the got the crowd stirring.
When the speaker announced that the Americans – those privileged recipients of the good karma of their past lives, those high-caste fair-skinned English speakers – would go out in the crowd and invite these shudra-slaves and dalit-untouchables up to receive footwashings, the confined lot electrified. What the brahman-priests had told them was impossible (or at least unholy) was breaking out upon Ambedkar park. The women were up first, as the men stayed back to greet the handshakes, stares and grins of the crowd.
I lost the pace of the frenzy. At one moment, I would be introducing myself to a eight-year-old and trying to get him to tell me his name; the next moment I would be posing for a picture in the lens of a cell-phone camera. My attention was being snatched a dozen directions, while every few moments that voice in the back of my mind would barely whisper, it is not about me, it is not about me.
It was my turn to bring a man up to receive a footwashing. I walked out in the crowd and found one reasonable looking individual. He was dressed in western attire and had a clean shave. The effort was futile, as I learned through his broken English: “I am a minister. Like you. I work in Aligarh. I minister to Muslims.” Like many of the men, he was not interested in a footwashing. Rather, the fact that he could equate himself to me through his actions (even if he overestimated how much of my life is actually about honest ministry) was enough. I thanked him for his work, shook hands and rushed off to find someone else.
Standing by the wall was a man who looked to be in his late fifties. Quite likely someone who could have been a grandfather. He spoke not a lick of English. His smile showed once-healthy teeth that had never had the privilege of a dentist visit. Grey stubble shone across his wrinkled, dark face. He stood at about my height.
It took gestures and a translator, but as soon as he understood he agreed to come up. As I guided him to the front, he started to take off his shoes and socks before we even got to the chair and water buckets. We took our positions, I cupped water in one hand and his foot in another.
Knowing full well how important it was to make a connection, and I looked up and met his eyes full of gentle thankfulness. In that encounter with a man who held more than twice the life experience of my own, both of us discovered the most respect that we have ever received from a stranger. A psychic warmth, both unnameable and familiar, flooded into every ounce of my perception. In comparison to this, an act of charity seemed like a cold sacrifice. Here was that heterotopic glimpse, for the two of us, that burned upon our eyes an image of how the world could be, how the world should be. The hope that gives the rhyme to living, dying, fighting and crying. It explains, perhaps, why Jesus had to wash the feet of the apostles: to calm his troubled soul in face of being crucified for the sins of the world.
As I brought the towel to dry his feet, he reached for his cell phone. We took a pixelated photograph together, so he could remember that it all was not a dream, that the walls between brothers were never ordained by the priests (or for that matter, the gods) but instead were a legacy of human sin. With this monumental memory so profoundly in hindsight, and I will dare say this for the both of us, the horizon of possibilities burst forth with glorious new opportunity.