Ahead of Maundy Thursday, faith leaders held a foot washing service for refugees in front of the White House “to raise the importance of servanthood and hospitality,” according to organizers.
During Wednesday’s press conference, faith leaders knelt down on cobble steps in Lafayette Park to participate in a religious ritual on Holy Week, in a symbolic gesture patterning after Jesus Christ’s actions during the Last Supper with the 12 Disciples.
“Where are the refugees?” Rev. Sharon Stanley-Rea, the director of Refugee and Immigration Ministries for the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, questioned onlookers at the start of the press conference.
Fewer than 10,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States in the 2018 fiscal year, according to recent reporting by the Associated Press. The refugee admissions ceiling for this fiscal year is only 45,000 people, which according to the Migration Policy Institute, is the “lowest level since the program began in 1980.” In 2017, the Trump administration accepted only 29,022 refugees — the lowest number of refugees resettled since 2002.
Two refugees — one from the Democratic Republic of Congo and another from Sudan — spoke on Wednesday about their journeys to the United States before two faith leaders separately washed their feet. As White House tourists with cameras looked on, advocates holding signs in support of immigrants and refugees formed a loose circle around the footwashing rituals. Each refugee received blessings and had their feet washed in plastic basins, then dried with clean white towels.
The religious symbolism of footwashing takes its roots in early Christianity. On the night before Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, he exercised humility and service by kneeling in front of his 12 disciples to wash their feet. It was on Maundy Thursday — the Thursday before Easter — when Jesus spent time with his disciples one last time to tell them what would soon take place. It would soon become apparent that one of his disciples would turn him over to soldiers and betray him to the Roman authorities. Christians now commemorate the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the 12 Apostles as part of Holy Week.
Sr. Marie Lucey, a Catholic sister who works with Franciscan Action Network in Washington, D.C., washed the feet of Manyang Reath Kher, who lived in refugee camps along the Sudanese and Ethiopian border and now works to improve the lives of Sudanese refugees through his Richmond, Virginia based coffee business. Lucey put her hands on Reath Kher before the ritual and quietly said, “I welcome you my brother.”
Reflecting on the connection that she formed with Reath Kher after the event, Lucey grew emotional and called it a “great privilege” to be able to wash a refugee’s feet.
“It’s only a gesture — I wish I could do more,” Lucey told ThinkProgress. “And I try to do more. But it was a very moving moment for me and after I heard Manyang tell his story, I felt privileged to be given the opportunity to do this.”
Lucey added that the ritual was especially unique for her because the Catholic tradition reserves foot washing for Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) and it’s often done by priests instead. She further hoped the day’s event would allow President Donald Trump to see the dignity of refugees and persuade him to allow in “at least 45,000 refugees this year and 75,000 next year. It’s in our country’s interest.”
Rev. Reuben Eckels, the Interfaith advocacy minister at the Church World Service, followed Lucey’s service by washing the feet of Beni Dedieu Luzau, who came to the country as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
After the event, Eckels said the event “felt very natural” for him as a servant of God and as a Church World Service worker because “we come not to be served, but to serve.” He was also touched that he — as a descendant of African and Congolese ancestors who has fought against “racism and all the -isms” — is now in a position where he can “make sure that [Dedieu Luzau’s] life is better than ours and the ones who came before us.”
“It is our role, not only in our faith community but also as a citizen of the USA to serve those who are coming to the country because we are a nation of immigrants,” Eckels told ThinkProgress.
Andy Kalala — a former journalist from the Democratic Republic of Congo who was forced to go to Mozambique before he was able to come to the United States as an asylum seeker — also spoke at the conference to urge the Trump administration to raise its limit for refugee admissions. After the foot washing ritual ended, Kalala said he felt overcome with emotions after watching other refugees feel genuinely “welcomed” to the United States.
“This is very touching,” Kalala said. “It’s emotional to me. It shows you the love and passion. It shows you that you are welcomed in this country. To me, it’s very very touching. It’s profound.”
Stanley-Rea hopes that the Holy Week event will force Trump and congressional lawmakers to recall that Jesus’s commitment “before he left this Earth… is to serve the must vulnerable among us.”
“If we care about communities from any backgrounds that are persecuted, we most open our hearts,” Stanley-Rea told ThinkProgress. “We must open our mouths, we must dial our phones. We must take our feet to Congress to ensure that they allow the feet and the whole selves of refugees to come and we must remember to wash the feet of our neighbors in serving them and loving them.”
Most recently, faith organizers took part in a similar action last year on behalf of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants temporary work authorization and lawful presence to some undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
Many faith advocacy groups have increasingly linked together the Biblical story of Jesus with the modern migratory journeys of vulnerable individuals fleeing their homes. Pope Francis has also made migrants and refugees a focal point of his papacy. During his trip to the United States-Mexico border, he delivered a speech on the border as a powerful show of solidarity with immigrants.