Recently a team served around 2,000 individuals in New Delhi and the hills of India. It was a truly special time as the team was welcomed in unique ways, and the act of foot-washing had a special impact on those they served.
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A group of women in bright orange, yellow, and red saris sang a beautiful song that likened the team’s arrival to their village to flowers blooming.
Everywhere the team went, there was a sense of celebration, a sense of honor and openness. Each day that the team arrived at a village for a distribution, they were welcomed with a flower garland, signifying it was a great honor to have the visitors, and a dot on the forehead, symbolizing the village respected them and their generosity. That was often followed by songs and dances that showed how proud and honored the village was to have guests.
And each day, those welcoming ceremonies set the stage for moments of great significance because the team quickly learned that washing feet in India means so much more.
The bus parked and the team unloaded to start walking the narrow alleys into a slum area of the capital city, New Delhi. Honks and bells from motorcycles filled the dry, hot air along with people who were gathered around a city truck delivering water.
After walking several minutes, the team entered a small classroom filled with young children sitting barefoot on rugs. The kids immediately started waving and smiling at their guests as the team began fitting and placing new shoes on them.
All of the shoes being distributed in India this week were manufactured in India. Around 63,000 pairs of shoes were produced, with half staying in India and the other half being shipped to Uganda and South Africa for future distributions.
After some silly moments with the younger children, the team descended a steep set of stairs into a basement area to serve the older kids. As the Samaritan’s Feet story was being told to them in English, they were proudly translating it together in Hindi to show the language skills they had learned in school.
“Students are required to wear shoes in school. Unfortunately about 80% of students who study in the government schools do not get new shoes. They’ll wear shoes that their brothers have worn or some rich relative has worn, which is then repaired by cobblers, and they wear those shoes through their school lives,” said Rajiv Sharma, Samaritan’s Feet’s India host.
The team returned to the alleys and walked to the next distribution site. In a 10’ x 10’ room, 40 women and older girls waiting patiently and quietly for our team. Due to the cultural and religious norms in that area, only the women on the team were permitted to enter to serve this group.
The younger girls quickly embraced being served by the team, but the older women were hesitant, as they were consistently told they were “unworthy” by society. Not only were they hesitant, but they were backing up, holding their legs and feet in, even as the team tried to gently describe what an honor it would be for them to serve these ladies. In India, touching feet is the highest form of honor. But in a quick moment, one woman jumped up in a burst of confidence and acceptance, sitting down in front of a team member to have her feet washed. Quickly after, all the ladies followed suit.
The small room was bursting with delight, joy, and smiles. All of the women who were served wanted to take photos with the women who had just served them. Everyone in the room could feel the emotional shift that day!
The men were waiting outside of the room, trying to find shade from the 110 degree sun when they experienced that beautiful welcoming attitude again: “A lady actually opened her door and said, ‘would you like to come in?’ I would consider her extremely poor and she said, ‘I’ll give you some tea, have some water.’ That’s what India is all about—I may not have anything in my pocket, but I have a heart large enough to accommodate everybody,” said Sharma.
After a six hour train ride towards the Himalayas, the team arrived in Haldwani, where several days of shoes distributions would take place.
Set-up around the Gujraura school, the people living in this area live below the poverty level. In the past, the group of people served in this area would have been considered “untouchable,” so much so that some women were required to tie a broom to their back to brush away their footprints.
As the bus made its way to the designated meeting spot, it was met by lots of inquisitive and curious glances. Women were wearing their best saris, makeup, and jewelry because they felt honored and blessed to have guests.
The gates were open, and adults flooded in all morning and afternoon to be served.
“These people live a life of lack,” said Sharma. “They want to make sure they get in because they have been promised things before and it hasn’t happened.” The team noticed that many of the adults were putting their new shoes back into their bag instead of wearing them out. Sharma said they are “saving them for special occasions.”
The next day, the team returned to that same site to serve all of the children in that area. This time the bus was met with waves and smiles, not curious stares. Groups of school children wearing blue plaid uniforms were all lined up to be served, six at a time. They giggled and smiled, as all school-age children do, as they waited their turn for their special moment and new shoes.
Later that day, some of the team visited a local market and met a tailor at a fabric store and again, experienced the hospitality of India. Upon hearing what the team was doing, the tailor reached out and said “can I also contribute my old pair of shoes for donation? You guys are doing such a good work. I am happy to see that.”
The next stop for the team was the village of Nathupur Padli where the village leader had offered his home for the distribution. The team was again welcomed with a ceremony and songs, clapping after each of us arrived. The village leader thanked the team “from the bottom of his heart, for choosing his poor village to serve.”
“The poor in our country are the Scheduled Tribes, who actually are living off cleaning toilets and sewers. When we started talking to people around the area, everybody suggested that we start from the base of the hills and then go up. So, we are targeting about four villages and there are 60 of them in totality, which is a huge number to cover,” said Sharma.
Families walked up to the home and into a shaded area that the village leader had set up for his people which offered a quick shield from the sun. One older man walked a great distance from a field nearby and as he arrived, he bowed and told the team “namaste,” a respectful greeting and welcome.
The village leader offered the team tea, soda, and cookies and a nice rest from serving the crowds so far. Towards the end of the day there, team members were asked to take numerous pictures with those they had just served. One woman taking a picture grabbed the arm of a team member, putting it around her, and smiled proudly with her new friend.
A storm the night before caused a small landslide on the path up to the next distribution site. Luckily a bulldozer was there to clear the gravel road for the team and the shoes.
It was a steep, winding road up to the Raushillla district, nestled in the lower Himalayas. The bus parked and the team walked down a hill to reach the area where the distribution would be, an area already filled with at least 100 people and a breathtaking view of the mountains. The school children had their arms around each other as they walked around and asked for photos, a vision of their beautiful companionship and their love for one another.
One final time, the team was greeted with song and dance, hugs and smiles. Every-so-often, children and adults would appear from the lush green hills and walk down to join in the festivities. The children looked on, wide-eyed (especially when they spotted candy), at the team setting up foot-washing stations.
Sharma added, “the process of foot washing seemed to fascinate a lot of people throughout India. Several people said, ‘no, no, you’re not going to touch our feet.’ But when explained to them as to why it’s being done—as a sign of respect, honor, and gratitude—then they were just so thankful to be served the way they were.”
Many people the team served in India have grown up being told they’re untouchable, and feeling like they are unworthy of any kindness, compassion, or service. But, when the team washed their feet as a tangible act of kindness, compassion, and service, that spirit of unworthiness collapsed and dignity filled its place.
And dignity can be a powerful force for so much more.