A priest who served our parish a few years ago made an unforgettable request of us one Sunday morning.
Father Stephen had often reminded us of our material blessings. A joyful Nigerian, he commented many times about how much, in the midst of all our possessions, we Americans complain.
This, in a semi-arid mountain valley not exactly brimming with wealth, even before the pandemic. Seventy percent of children in the school where I work receive free or reduced school lunch.
But Father Stephen let us know that by third world standards, we were rolling in dough. Most of us were eating pretty well. We own cars and trucks and televisions and smart phones and much more. The people in his region of Nigeria didn’t.
Our abundance of possessions includes multiple pairs of shoes, far more than any of us need.
And that’s where Father Stephen was going the day I left my shoes at church.
He was going back to visit Nigeria in a few weeks, he told us, and he hoped to bring a shipment of shoes with him to give away to the people there because so many of them lack necessities of food and clothing and shoes.
“So this morning,” the priest announced in a deep, animated voice, “I challenge you to take off your shoes and leave them by me as you leave the church. I will take them to Nigeria and give them away.”
Nervous laughter overtook the congregation. We glanced around to see if anyone was taking him seriously.
How quickly the mind calculates the obstacles to acting out of the ordinary.
My shoes were inexpensive and could easily be replaced. Was I really being asked to take them off, leave them by Father Stephen and drive home in my stocking feet?
Yes. I was. Yet Father Stephen also reassured everyone:
“If you need the shoes you’re wearing today, it’s ok. We’ll have a box outside my office all week. You’re welcome to bring any shoes you don’t need and leave them there and they’ll be part of the gift from our parish.”
Even though I’m not much into fashion, when I thought about my closet’s shoe pile I realized I could easily bring more shoes to the church later in the week and still wear the ones on my feet home.
On the other hand, I thought, I only live a few blocks from church and I could drive that far shoeless.
I wiggled my toes. Did my sheer socks have holes? I wasn’t sure. In my hurry to dress for church that morning I didn’t think about which pair I’d pulled out of the the drawer.
The indignity of walking out of Mass with a hole in my sock was a far bigger deal than giving up my shoes.
That, I understood, was my pride.
Father Stephen read the final prayer and blessed us.
The Mass is ended. Go in peace.
Some folks had already removed their shoes before Father finished but nobody near me had done so, which made a decision to remain shod all the easier. I considered making a quick exit through the side door at my right.
The recessional hymn began, and Michael, a young man the pew in front of me, bent down and removed his shoes.
They were in better shape than mine and he had further to drive than I did, but there he stood in stocking feet, shoes in hand, grinning.
In a heartbeat, I slipped off my Walmart flats. To my great relief, my socks were intact at the toes! Smiling now, I picked up my shoes and made my way toward Father Stephen, trying hard not to notice who was shoeless and who wasn’t. Finally, I dropped my shoes on the priest’s pile and his laughter boomed.
Soon I felt the cool parking lot asphalt beneath me.
Take off your shoes; the ground you are standing on is holy.
Stocking-footed friends giggled all the way their way to their cars, shaking their heads at the outrageous priest and the unforgettable opportunity he’d given us.
Remembering an old Rich Mullins tune, I went home and gathered more shoes to leave at the priest’s door before he left for the other side of the world.
A couple of months later I was sitting at my desk scrolling through Facebook when I discovered a video Father Stephen had posted about his trip back home.
I sat astonished at the mustard-seed effect of Father’s request for shoes. On the screen I watched the Father’s Nigerian family and friends as he presented this great pile of shoes–Nikes, sandals, boots, heels, hikers–all from a little town in one of the poorest counties in Colorado.
I gave thanks that some of them were mine.
Without Michael’s example, it might not have been so.
Because a young man did the right thing right in front of me, I received grace to shed my stocking-hole pride when I slid off my Sunday shoes.
The next week there was Michael, in the pew in front of me at Mass. After the blessing as we were walking out, I said, “Hey Michael, your example is affecting other people more than you know!”
“What?” he asked, and I explained that what he’d done that had helped me take off my own shoes, and how thankful I’d been that I did when I watched how Father gave our shoes away.
“I was so worried about whether my socks had holes in them,” I confided.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter if your piggies show!” he quipped with another grin.
Right again, Michael.
What matters, St. Paul wrote to the early Christians, is “faith working through love.”
How beautifully a mustard-seed moment branches.
And what else, after this small but dramatic beginning, might I leave behind without worrying what others think?
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Rich Mullins also knew that you didn’t have to go to the other side of the world to help someone in need:
Whose good example inspires you? Please share below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!