Church takes barefooted steps to aid the poor
Chimes peal from the bell tower of the 166-year-old steeple at St. Paul’s UMC in New Windsor on a warm, summer morning.
While the call to worship may be the same as every other Sunday, the progression into the church, about an hour from the nation’s capital, is surely unusual.
Two women in long summer dresses stroll up the walkway, but they have no summer sandals protecting their toes from the concrete. The women, like many other folks making their way to the sanctuary, are barefoot.
“In America, we throw away enough every year to put footwear on the people around the world who don’t even have one pair,” Jacque Wilhelm exclaimed. “We’re excited to share today.”
Wilhelm, chairperson for the Missions and Nurture Team at St. Paul’s carries a bag of shoes, some new and some gently used. Her two little boys, Pierce and Ian, carefully clutch children’s shoes that they will give.
“It’s Barefoot Sunday!” says Pierce, sporting a homemade T-shirt decorated for the occasion with his own footprints.
This special day of worship is part of a June 7 nationwide event in partnership with Soles 4 Souls, a Nashville, Tenn.,-based organization that collects and distributes shoes to some of the 300 million people worldwide who do not have even one pair to call their own. St. Paul’s is one of several United Methodist congregations that participated.
“Most people are excited about what we are doing today, and others it makes uncomfortable, but sometimes that’s OK because it helps us too,” said the Rev. Helen Armiger. She is wearing her traditional robes but is barefoot.
“I’ve been in countries where people have no choice but to go barefoot,” she said. “Children have scars on their feet; they are vulnerable to disease and infection, and we can help them.”
As the music begins, worshippers file into the sanctuary. About half are wearing shoes, and almost all are carrying shoes to share.
“I brought two pairs of shoes to give away,” said 76-year-old Jean Fitschen. A couple of people relish the novelty of being barefoot in church.
“I’d do this every week,” said Sunday school teacher Missy Marlin, wiggling her bare toes.
Armiger points out that in some cultures and even historically, being barefoot in church is a tradition.
“In India, people remove their shoes before they receive Communion,” Armiger explained.
Before Communion begins, parishioners are invited to lay their shoes before the altar. Lines of people fill the aisles, while pumps, boots and tennis shoes begin to pile up at the front of the church.
“Here is one more pair,” said 67-year-old Joanne Hillary. “Nope, wait, I have a couple of others in here.” From the depths of her handbag she pulls another pair, adding a total of nine pairs of shoes to the stack.
“Wait, here are the pair I’m wearing,” she said. She removes the shoes from her feet and walks back to her pew in her stockings.
“It’s liberating,” Hillary said. “I don’t care if people see me walking out of church in my stocking feet. I will know that I am helping change someone else’s life today.”
In all, almost 300 pairs of shoes will fill boxes to be given away on four continents. The congregation also collected monetary donations to defray shipping costs.
“Every kid loves being barefoot, but especially in church,” said 15-year-old Reba Wolfe.
“I know this is better for the community and the world,” she says. “We’re helping people one shoe at a time.”