Pastors Wash Immigrants' Feet To Honor Their Difficult Journeys

Foot washing is a way for clergy to appreciate the sacrifices of migrants who travel to the U.S. for a better life, a United Church of Christ leader says.
Two United Church of Christ pastors and two immigrant activists participated in a foot-washing ceremony on the Capitol lawn Wednesday.
Two United Church of Christ pastors and two immigrant activists participated in a foot-washing ceremony on the Capitol lawn Wednesday.
Jessica Quinn, United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill debate how to appropriate federal funds for the next fiscal year, a group of ministers from the United Church of Christ gathered in Washington to wash immigrants’ feet.

Two UCC conference ministers, whose roles are similar to bishops, washed the feet of an asylum seeker and a so-called Dreamer on the Capitol lawn Wednesday, using an ancient Christian ritual to draw attention to the issues facing immigrants in the U.S. today.

Twenty-two UCC conference ministers from across the country were at the Capitol to demand that Congress reject increased funding for the detention and deportation of immigrants and for border militarization. They asked instead that the U.S. invest in community-based alternatives to detention that keep families together.

Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, a UCC conference minister who represents congregations in northern Illinois, told HuffPost that he and his colleagues want to see Congress “defund hate and celebrate dignity.”

The foot-washing ceremony recalls the biblical story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper to demonstrate humility and compassion. Christians often hold up the story as a model for servant leadership. In the UCC and some other Christian denominations, ministers perform foot-washing rituals on Maundy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper.

Gonzalez said that in this context, foot washing is a way for clergy to recognize the difficult journey of migrants who travel to the U.S. for a better life. He compared it to the journey of Jesus’ parents, who fled to Egypt to escape a massacre in their native land.

“Jesus’ parents crossed borders and didn’t have papers or permission, but they needed to protect their child and their lives, and they did what they needed to do,” Gonzalez said. “This was a godly act, and we honor that, not only for Jesus and his parents, but also for the faces of Jesus, Mary and Joseph that we see in our immigrant siblings.”

Watch the United Church of Christ’s action below.

Gonzalez helped his old Buffalo, New York, congregation enter the sanctuary movement during the final few months of the Obama administration. The minister said that “Obama was no saint” when it came to immigration, but he feels that the Trump administration’s policies have a “mean-spiritedness” and “intentional cruelty” that he hadn’t seen coming from the White House previously.

Lawmakers are currently scrambling to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year, on Monday. Disagreements over funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S.-Mexico border wall are expected to spark tensions between Democrats and Republicans.

The UCC conference ministers plan to spend two days on the Hill visiting 40 lawmakers to ask them to stop funding policies that separate families. The ministers have brought letters from congregants and drawings from children in the denomination to help emphasize their demands, Gonzalez said.

The UCC declared itself an "Immigrant Welcoming Denomination" in 2017.
The UCC declared itself an "Immigrant Welcoming Denomination" in 2017.
Jessica Quinn, UCC Justice and Witness Ministries D.C. Office

Luz Chavez, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (often called Dreamers) and an organizer for the immigrant youth network United We Dream, was one of the two people who had their feet washed. Chavez, who grew up Roman Catholic, told HuffPost that the ritual was meant to help her feel welcomed in this community and in this country.

“I felt very empowered, very welcomed, very humbled, because I have not just my immigrant community behind me, but different communities out there to support me,” she said. “Everyone there was trying to make sure I was OK, trying to make sure my family was OK. We prayed, and it just felt very like home and inclusive.”

The UCC, a mainline Protestant denomination, declared itself an “immigrant welcoming denomination” during an all-church meeting in 2017. It encourages member congregations to become involved in advocacy for migrants.

Religious activists from other traditions ― including Catholics, Jews and Muslims ― have also spoken up against ICE’s detention policies in recent months.

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