My name is Emily, and I’ve spent the last nine months working with the Open Table at St George in the East and with the Bishop of Durham in Parliament. The Open Table are a powerful, consistent and faithful group of people whose origin story is the stuff of legend- two tenacious and compassionate people with a pot of soup in their neighbourhood.

As I arrived to begin my placement with the Open Table, I was coming from my previous job working nights at a hostel for rough sleepers. This was a place that was sometimes difficult to be, and the hostel at times was full of cynicism and lack of belief in its tenants. I remember my first meeting with the Open Table, where they told me stories of the many, many nights they’d spent, through winters and rain to feed their friends on the streets and build community with them. Their sacrifice and love for people was moving, and I left energised and challenged. Over the last nine months, we’ve been pursuing a community sponsored temporary supported accommodation scheme in the neighbourhood.

At St George’s I was asked to reflect on Maundy Thursday and working with the homeless. The reading for that day was from John 13- where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. This blog post is based on some of the reflections I shared that evening.

In the passage we read in John, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. This will have been a hugely surprising act- it was custom for people’s feet to be washed before they could sit down at the Passover meal, but always by a servant. We read in other gospels that the disciples had been dreaming of power, and argued about things like who of the twelve of them would be the greatest. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus replies to them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be last, and the servant of all”. I can almost picture the looks of surprise on their faces as Jesus himself, the one they knew to be the Messiah, stooped to wash their feet and do the undignified job of the servant in an act of great mercy and love. 

What a beautiful, breath-taking image of the incarnation and our salvation. Our mighty God could have saved us any other way, but chose to himself come down to us, below us, as our servant, and by hand, wash the dirt off our feet. As Jesus explains what he’s doing, the disciples are told to go and wash other people’s feet, to treat them with the same service, love and invitation that He did them.

When I worked in the hostel, I was often with a security guard on shift, and so had the sole responsibility to make important decisions, and be available to listen to people’s joys and sorrows and fears and hurt. I often felt powerless to fix the injustices people had experienced, and the shortcomings of the hostel for its residents. I felt sad that my two worlds of church and work felt so far apart. I felt like my efforts weren’t helping. It felt very difficult to take up Jesus’ ask of foot washing in this context.

I discovered last year that body clock changes that come with working nights do some funny things- my appetite was out of sorts and I ended up eating curry first thing after waking up, I wore sunglasses at 7 in the morning to try and make it feel like the night time, and in the middle of the scorching heatwave in May I managed to forget there was a working lift in the building and spent the night running up and down flights of stairs, with a poor paramedic who had to do the same. Songs also stuck with me, and attached themselves to memories and feelings more vividly than normal. The song I listened to for the first time last Easter weekend was called ‘Mercy’ by Chris Renzema, and it draws out for me the holiness of Jesus in his ordinary act, as He, the King of kings, scrubs the dirty feet of his disciples. The glorious truth is that Jesus isn’t separate from us when he takes our dirty feet in his hands- he came down and was present in the ordinary, mundane moments. This gave me great comfort. That as I walked around the hostel through the night it wasn’t useless or removed from church, but a place into which Jesus was invited, and made holy.

The song that I mentioned addresses the people who are rejected, who are “used to being passed by”. The song says to them “there’s room at his table for you”. 

There’s room at His table for you, and me, and from the table, with clean feet, we can humbly follow the example of our Saviour- trying, even though it can feel so hard, to gently wash the dirt off people’s feet through unholy-feeling moments.

It’s since doing this programme that I realise more and more that community organising is not a tool that makes me feel powerless, but that identifies value and power and in the hands of those passed by. This is what Jesus models for us as he puts aside his power to serve, and elevates the people around him. He says ‘Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. This inversion of power that Jesus brings as he inaugurates the Kingdom of God is beautifully displayed as he kneels before his disciples, and as he calls us to do the same, we’re shown the way by faithful teams in our neighbourhoods.

Applications for the next Buxton Leadership Programme which begins in September are now open until 23 May. Find out more and apply here.