This stop turned out to be the community’s home for men dying of AIDS. When I discovered where we were, I was surprised by how apprehensive I felt. I’d spent a lot of time around dying people, so that wasn’t it. Maybe I was self-conscious about being around gay men and needle addicts.
“Most of the men who live here have no one to take care of them,” Angelina said. “Their families have disowned them, and their friends have stopped visiting. We help them die with dignity, and hopefully they see Jesus in us.”
The house was quiet except for a cat meowing in some faraway room. The three of us walked up the stairs to the second floor. Through open doors, we could see men in different stages of illness. Some were propped up in bed reading; others slept. At the top of the third-floor landing, a petite young woman with close-cropped hair and a beaming smile was waiting for us.
“This is Eva. She’s a volunteer in training from one of our houses in Germany,” Angelina said.
Eva shook my hand. “You’ve come just in time. We need to give the men baths,” she said.
“Maggie, why don’t you go downstairs and look in on some of the men? They love visitors,” Angelina said. I knew we’d soon hear laughter coming from the floor below.
“Can I go with her?” I asked.
Angelina placed her hand on my arm. “We could use you up here,” she said.”
My heart was beating like a drum against my rib cage, just at the idea of giving a man a bath. I scrambled for a reason why I couldn’t possibly help, but I wasn’t fast enough. Angelina took my hand, and we went into a room where a young man lay on a bed, staring blankly at the ceiling.
“Buongiorno, Amadeo,” Angelina said. “I’ve brought a friend today.” Angelina removed the blanket that covered Amadeo’s body. He was a naked stick, mute, his almond-shaped eyes filled with that pitiable mixture of panic and confusion. His pallid skin hung flaccidly — he must have been six feet tall once, but now he surely weighed less than a hundred pounds. I felt a rush of both shock and sadness. I looked at Angelina for help, and she smiled at me reassuringly.”
“Let’s put Amadeo in the tub,” she said, as she repeated in Italian so that he and I would both know what we were doing next.
Eva dipped her hands into the water to make sure it was the right temperature, while Angelina and I lifted Amadeo. I tenderly placed my hands under his shoulder blades. They felt like sharp-edged clamshells cruelly implanted in his upper back. I was afraid his skin would tear like tissue in my grip. The bones of his pelvis stuck out through his skin like six-shooters in flesh holsters.
We lowered him slowly into the bath; the steam that moved across the water parted as his body passed through it. Amadeo winced as the open sores on his body made contact with the tepid water. Angelina spoke to him soothingly while sponging off his brittle frame.
She handed me a rag. “Would you mind washing his genitals,” she asked evenly.
I was speechless. The stick-man looked at me as if to say, “What will you choose to do now?”
There is a tensile surface on water that’s always fascinated me. I’ve ruminated before about that infinitesimally thin layer of resistance when preparing for baptisms. Is the water giving the candidate one last chance to go back, a last-minute opportunity to pull away and say no to the intense yet life-giving drowning that lies ahead? Or is it a reminder that there really is a separation between this fallen world and the next?”
“As I pushed against my revulsion and plunged the sponge beneath the water, I thought of it again but refused its invitation to hold back. I’d passed through a border into the depths and found I could still breathe there. My terror and embarrassment was replaced by peace, edging toward sublime joy.
“Did you know that Francis had a phobic aversion to lepers?” Angelina asked, continuing to wash Amadeo.
I wrung the water out of my rag. “I’ve read about it,” I said quietly.
“He was so disgusted by them that whenever he saw one, he’d cover his mouth and nose and run away. One day, he was riding his horse on the outskirts of Assisi and saw a leper. He was tempted to take off in the other direction, but then he heard Jesus telling him to get off his horse and kiss the leper. He did, and it was a breakthrough moment in his conversion.”
Angelina and I lifted Amadeo out of the tub and placed him on the bed, where Eva had placed fresh towels. We patted him dry and gingerly dabbed ointment on his sores. Amadeo closed his eyes, and his expression softened into something resembling peace. I wasn’t sure which was the more soothing to him — the cleansing, the salve, or the sensation of people touching him.
When we were finished, Eva put a warm fleece blanket over him. Angelina put her face close to his. “Good-bye, my friend. I will look in on you tomorrow.” Amadeo opened his eyes and stared at her. His lips moved, but no words came — only the sound of air passing over his vocal chords. Angelina kissed him on the forehead.
While we were walking down the stairs, Maggie came out of one of the rooms and met us in the hall. I must have looked dazed because she looked sideways at me. “What happened up there?” she asked
“I think I became a Christian,” I said.
An excerpt from Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron – one of my more meaningful reads over the past few years. It’s fiction. It desperately needs to become non-fiction in evangelical circles.
Read the story.
Read the book.
Just how might this world be transformed if we all chased Francis just a bit?
What would happen if today we became Christians?
We are so good at defining our positions, venting our holiness, taking our moral stands…
When it is a basin and a towel that he puts into our hands rather than theology laden tomes;
a basin filled with water to wash the feet of our enemies culturally, politically, religiously, morally.
We will bury an offending mayor with Bibles and sermons in protest of our religious freedoms,
but who will wash her feet?
Who will feed her?
Who will give her something to drink?
Our words would have weight if we washed more feet.
5 to 1. That’s the ratio. Every one word of instruction, correction, teaching should be preceded by five acts of hands-on, no-strings attached kindness. The ratio is arbitrary, I admit it. But it would be a start. In fact, theologians who are really into numbers say “five” is the number of grace, so five would be a good start.
Shut up. Wash feet. Five sets of feet. Then you can speak a word –
if you still want to.
If you still need to.
“Speak the truth in love,” say we.
But love is more than how you hold your mouth as you make your points and type your post. Saying “I love you” – and especially “I love you, but…” is not love. At least not biblically. The words are good and warm and affirming, but Love is only known in the Doing. Truth can only be spoken, if it need be spoken at all, in a context of demonstrated love. Anything less is mere harangue aka static. And this goes for whichever side you might take on whatever issue. Cowardice shouts from divers platforms, but it avoids dirty feet like the plague.
We much prefer the abrasive washing of words with our lips than the washing of dirty feet with our hands.
Our culture has a word for this:
Ah, but God has another word for it,