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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Of Shoes and the Sacred

Like a lot of women, and I suspect, some men, I love shoes. I’m a Doc Marten aficionada. For those of you unfamiliar with Docs as they are affectionately called, they started out as boots for the British workingman and they mysteriously took off in popularity with young hipster Americans in the early 1990s. I traveled to Brighton, England to buy my first pair. I went in search of the only authorized “vegetarian” Docs, made of synthetic leather right there in Brighton. It was during my “I don’t buy leather shoes” phase. As it turned out, the boots rubbed horrible blisters and I gave them away. Many years later, I bought my second pair, clunky black wingtips you’ve seen me wear, also manufactured in England. By the time I bought my third pair of Docs, brown oxfords, I noticed they were made in Thailand, as were my latest acquisition, the purple ones.

Sadly, Doc Martens have gone the way of Nike and Converse and Keens, all made in elsewhere. We can only hope the shoes we wear are not manufactured in sweatshop conditions. Footwear used to be a proud American-made product but with few exceptions only the hype is produced here. If it seems too late to reclaim the industry, take heart from the recent example of the Girl Scouts of the USA who put their uniform manufacturing out to bid. While Girls Scouts USA had a clause requiring vendors to adhere to “strict guidelines about worker age, treatment, and safety,” news of the bidding process evoked an onslaught of requests from parents, members and volunteers to keep the manufacture of uniforms in the U.S. and the organization did. Perhaps public pressure could bring the manufacture of shoes home.

We spend twenty-five billion dollars a year on shoes in the U.S. Though probably not representative of this congregation, Glamour magazine reports the average woman in the United States will buy 469 pairs of shoes in her lifetime. Even those of us who lack the Imelda Marcos penchant for shoes—if we add up all the shoes we’ve ever had, including the ones that get shoved to the back of the closet, bought on a whim or gone horribly out of style, or just too darn uncomfortable to wear, we accumulate scores of shoes over the years. Even men who stick to black and brown, dress and casual, and maybe a pair of athletic shoes can gather a collection. Anyone who’s ever bought shoes for children knows how fast they outgrow them.

Shoes don’t just cover our feet. They function as props in the play of our lives. The first pair of dress shoes—where we first wore them. The moment of passion when we slip off our shoes. The imprint of flip-flops or sandals on a favorite beach.

Our preference for and memory of certain shoes dates us: provides a timestamp, geography and social location. Do saddle shoes, wingtips, Weejuns, Sperry Topsiders, Keds, or Buster Browns ring a bell? What about those clunky old hiking boots with bright red laces? Or are you conversant with Diesel and Sketchers, Yellow Box and Chinese Laundry? Steel-toed Wolverines, Herman Survivors? Dependable old loafers or colorful Crocs?

Shoes are artifact.

Urban legend is full of shoes. Young men have been shot over a pair of Air Jordans. From basketball courts to Sex in the City, from soccer cleats to state of the art running shoes, from a pricy pair of Manolo mules to Florsheims polished to a mirror shine, shoes carry stories not just our feet.

What are your shoe tales? Do you remember the first pair you bought? If you have children, do you remember theirs? My mother kept my brother’s baby shoes in a beautiful antique curio cabinet with a glass door. All his little white shoes displayed on green velvet. I spent hours as a pre-schooler playing shoe store, lining up my stuffed animals, fitting them with my brother’s outgrown shoes. When my brother and I were small, there were not all the precious little baby and toddler shoes available now.

But I do remember a pair of cherry red oxfords and a matching pair in navy blue, buttery soft Italian leather, wildly extravagant for a six year old. Purchased by my mother on a trip to New York. My early childhood favorites were my first pair of high top sneakers. A reward for being brave at the dentist when I was four. And at six, I picked out my first pair of white bucks. Just like Dr. Kildare. Another reward for bravery at the dentist. Shoes narrate the string of cavities I had as a child.

They attest to miles traveled, destinations reached. When people die, there’s a poignancy to shoes left empty, the way they hold the scent and shape of feet, an intimate portrait left behind.

Shoes become metaphors as we speak of “big shoes to fill.” We remind one another not to judge a person before walking a mile his or her shoes. At Franklin Pierce University, there’s an annual event to raise awareness about domestic violence called “A Walk in Her Shoes,” where men are encouraged to literally walk in women’s shoes to experience how it feels.

But for all the money we spend and the metaphors we use, a billion people worldwide go without shoes, a third of them children. How do you walk a mile in the shoes of someone who has none?

During the second Sudanese civil war, when thousands of the Lost Boys (and a number of girls) walked hundreds of miles to escape, most walked barefoot. Everyday, people in places rife with infection, parasites, and inadequate or nonexistent sanitation go shoeless because they can’t afford them. None of the 30,000 shoe stores in the U.S., not even Zappos or Endless.Com can reach the folks living in makeshift tents and lean-tos of discarded tin, relegated to refugee camps or roadsides, or stuck between active railway tracks. In Latin America, Africa, Asia, children wander barefoot. Teenagers travel in shoes four sizes too small. Adults do their best to scuff along in fragments of shoes so worn they barely hold together. In Romania, Mongolia and the Ukraine, where it’s cold half the year, people need boots and sturdy shoes. When many refugees from the Southern Hemisphere arrive in North America they often wear sandals year-round. Right here in the United States, when hurricanes, floods, and wildfires devastate areas, thousands of people need footwear.

As a child who relished shoes, it did not occur to me to imagine living without them though when I think back to the kids who lived maybe a mile or two away on dirt road aptly named Hardscuffle, their dark brown feet were usually bare. For them, hookworm was probably a reality along with calluses and cuts and endless dust.

It was a single shoe washed up on the beach after the tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004 that compelled a successful shoe company executive named Wayne Elsey to rally his associates in the industry to collect 250,000 pairs of shoes. After Hurricane Katrina, he did it again, and then realized he needed to keep going. He started the non-profit organization Soles4Souls with simple goal of providing shoes to people in need. Right now, they give away a pair of shoes every seven seconds. But Wayne wants to make it a pair every second until the need for new shoes becomes obsolete.

When I first read about the possibility of traveling with Soles4Souls to help fit shoes, I flashed back to myself at three, slipping the paws of teddy bears and stuffed kittens into my brother’s white booties and orthopedic saddle shoes. I can do this, I thought. I do not know how to build houses or pour concrete foundations or lay bricks, but I can fit shoes. I can wash feet; in fact, I have wanted to participate in that religious ritual since I first heard of it in seminary. Before Jesus was reputed to have washed the feet of his disciples, washing the feet of one’s guests was a sign of hospitality in the Ancient Near East. In the book of Exodus, “the washing of feet is required of those who are to come before God at the Sanctuary”[1]

Most religions have rituals around purity or ablutions but the spiritual cleanliness of washing feet can be as much a way to sanctify the washer as the washee.

From the thirteenth chapter of the Book of John:

During supper Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. Jesus came to Simon Peter who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” …After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? …I have set an example that you also should do as I have done to you.”

It is an example I want to follow. The humility and intimacy sanctifies both parties. If shoes tell a story, feet illustrate it with their pungency and naked truth.

Our feet connect us to the earth, to what is real and sacred which is why God instructs Moses to remove his sandals so that he can feel the ground holy beneath his feet.

Holiness isn’t something ephemeral or amorphous that exists out there in the ether or the firmament. Holiness is what occurs in the moment of alchemy when any of us chooses to be fully present to another.

Joan Chittister, the great Benedictine nun, writer and activist I often quote from, recounts a personal story of her daily commute in her book, Welcome to the Wisdom of the World:

"I began to notice, there was one solitary man standing back off the roadside at the edge of a ragged corn field, a flag in his hand, a sign by his side, one small camp chair open and planted behind him. Trip after trip. Week after week. In cold rain and sleet, in hot sun and wind, there he stood, alone and totally silent. Keeping watch, eloquently silent.

"One day, I simply turned the car around and went back, drove down the berm slowly, and stopped. …he wore army fatigues, and, on the broomstick standard that he held in one hand while he waved with the other, he flew a homemade flag with a peace sign on it. 'Give peace a chance,' the sandwich board sign propped up by the chair read. He himself, I realized as I got closer, had braces on his legs.

"He was just one man with one small peace sign standing on an empty road waving a homemade flagpole back and forth at every car that passed.

"In my mind, that single man, a veteran I presume, goes on waving every day of my life. It was his persistence, his dogged refusal to give up waving, his single-minded commitment to changing my mind that got me.

"When all is said and done, 'persistence' is the antidote to powerlessness. When I refuse to go on waving, when I pick myself up and leave the field, I have given in. I have surrendered my soul to forces whose only argument is that doing what is wrong is better than doing something else. But it is not the glory of the Chinese government and its use of repression to maintain order that the world remembers —and applauds— after the rout at Tiananmen Square. It is the sight of one young man standing in front of a tank.

"… In the end, the sight of goodness undeterred has more power than all the forces on earth arrayed against it. "

For every pair of shoes we give to someone who needs them more, we sanctify the labor of those who cut the pattern, sewed the shoes, filled the box—often working in a sweatshop. We sanctify the sacrifice of animals whose skin becomes leather. We sanctify the persistence of a million Haitians still living in tents. We sanctify the persistence of the lost boys and girls who walked for years out of oblivion and sometimes back into it. We sanctify the persistence of immigrants who reach our shores yearning for a better life, wearing sandals in St. Paul or Chicago or Boston because that’s what they have and they will not let what’s on their feet stop them from moving.

We, the abundantly shod, who collect our surplus and send it to those in need: let us remember on the eve of Valentine’s Day, that while the health, lo, the survival, of millions hangs in the balance, our humanity dangles there, too.

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet writes: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news.” (52-7)

Let our feet be made beautiful not by our shoes, but our willingness to shed them—that we might feel the ground holy beneath us, made that way not by some distant god, but by the earth itself and the immanence of people who dare to persist. Amen.


[1] Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, pg. 828