MILWAUKEE –– Kneeling before a barefoot homeless man, Tom Bohmann paused to ask one question: were any parts of the man’s ragged and torn feet too sensitive or sore to be touched?
Bohmann then set to work, placing Earl Norris’s feet on a green towel laid between them and applying foot cream, powder and a brand new pair of white athletic socks.
“I feel like a new man,” Norris, 64, pronounced afterward.
He and another homeless man, 30-year-old Eleazar Wortham, had their feet cared for by Bohmann as part of a Holy Week ceremony at the Repairers of the Breach homeless outreach program, where Bohmann had just delivered a carload of foot care and other hygiene supplies. The foot care was symbolic of the “washing of the feet” that takes place during Holy Thursday services.
“I never thought I would be here,” Wortham admitted before the ceremony March 31, while sitting in one of the torn chairs lined up along a wall in the cramped space where volunteers help the homeless find services.
“I’m hoping to be able to fulfill a lot of projects; I have a lot of thoughts about what I should be doing,” he said, adding he has been without a home for two years now.
Bohmann’s work was part of the “Matthew 25” service project at St. James Parish, Menomonee Falls, based on the passage in the New Testament where Jesus tells his followers: “… The righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
The project, now in its second year and growing rapidly, involves choosing two charities for each of the elements mentioned in Matthew 25 – one within the parish and one in the larger community – and donating goods or services accordingly.
To symbolize Jesus’ message about being hungry or thirsty, the parishioners donated food to the Sussex Food Pantry, delivered food with home visits to shut-in parishioners, disabled and elderly, contributed food to the St. Martin de Porres food pantry and served Sunday dinner at a homeless shelter.
In addition, parishioners also donated clothing and volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul thrift store to symbolize the “naked” passage; donated Easter baskets to homebound senior citizens and took part in a “Vigil on Immigration,” (“stranger”); as well as donated Bibles, Christian literature and services to prisoners (“prison”).
“It’s an amazing project,” said Bohmann, a member of the human services committee. “The response is incredible. It’s definitely something we’ll continue to do, and I imagine it will only continue to grow.”
The foot care project was scheduled to merge with Holy Thursday services, where priests wash the feet of parish members to symbolize that they are servants of the people, and to echo the scene in when Jesus washed the feet of his Twelve Apostles before the Last Supper.
Repairers of the Breach, located in Milwaukee’s inner city, is not affiliated with any religion, although many of its leaders and supporters are Catholic. Established in 1991, the facility is the area’s only daytime resource center for the homeless and normally serves 130 to 150 homeless people a day, according to executive director MacCanon Brown, who watched on as Bohmann cared for the men’s feet. However, with the nice weather coupled with an ongoing construction project that has made the facility even more cramped and crowded, that number was a bit smaller the week of Bohmann’s visit.
Bohmann unloaded dozens of bagfuls of supplies from his car – ranging from the foot care products to other hygiene items, soaps, shampoos, toothbrushes and combs – and carried them into the facility before beginning his work. Afterward, he talked about the experience of caring for the men’s neglected and sore feet.
“It certainly is a direct application of Christ’s Gospel,” he said. “Taking care of a homeless person’s feet.” The experience, he said, was a bit more intimate and perhaps unsettling than he expected. “You’re getting right down there to this level, at a homeless person’s feet. … I’ve never had an experience like that before.”
The experience was just as meaningful to the homeless men who participated.
“It felt good,” Norris explained. “I felt cared for.”