Or at least is has been since I first met Ly. She was then a high schooler who would come into her family’s business after school, put her backpack aside and sit at the feet of others. She was from Cambodia, but came to the United States as a young girl. She spoke like “an American,” not quite a “Kentuckian,” but there was little trace of her history besides her outward appearance.
She was smart and sassy, and we shared our lives with each other, as she did my nails. She knew I was a minister, and she told of the time missionaries came to her school in Cambodia. They told the class they could go swimming at the pool, but they baptized each child as they entered. It was a subversive salvation tactic. Ly knew what was up then as a child, and her intuition was intact as a teenager.
I so hoped she would go onto college after high school instead of joining the family trade. I told her so, even as I knew it was an unpopular thing to say within earshot of her family members. Ly had so much more to offer than painting rich, white women’s nails.
But she was good at it. She did my nails for my wedding and even made it to the reception, all dressed up, after working nine hours at the nail salon.
Through Facebook, I have been able to watch Ly go on to college and graduate school and move away from home and travel the world. I am so happy for her. My visits with her were more to me than client and nail tech, but a time to ask questions and ponder answers and life and faith. She taught me a lot.
I got a pedicure today. Instead of chatting with the woman tending to my toes, I read Maryann McKibben Dana’s Sabbath in the Suburbs, a lovely book about finding the holy in the midst of family life. I realize, now that I serve a church in the suburbs, that I still have SO much time to enjoy my family and work and even special pampering possibilities, like pedicures during a workday. Crazy.
I had to put down my book during the manicure, and that is when I learned that the woman caring for me is named Le (her last name, but she chose it because it is easy for clients to say). She has been here two years, and she has two little ones at home, 2 years and 9 months, who stay at home with her mother while Le works ten-hour days. Every day. She went to school in Vietnam but would have to start all over in the United States, and she is too tired to take classes online. She asks me about my work schedule, and I say it’s flexible, because it is. Reading is part of my job. Getting my nails done, not so much, but I am not tied to a desk or cuticle remover all day. And I can afford to have my nails done every so often.
The irony. And yet, I have to believe that those who wash other people’s feet all day are somehow connected to a greater good. Of course, my mind goes to Jesus. The teacher tending to his students. His sometimes out-of-touch students. And I know that when I sit back in a massage chair while a working mom from Vietnam paints my toes, I am out-of-touch, as well. And so, I do what my mom does. Listen to the one kneeling. Hear her story. Ask her about herself and her kids. Exchange names and say thank you.
Surely, there is something spiritual about that. Or am I only trying to make myself feel better about being so flippingprivileged?
Because, of course, I then hear on the radio, a story about a DJ in Juarez, Mexico, who volunteers at a migrant shelter. There, Jorge Gutierrez meets migrants from Mexico who have been walking in boots for days, across deserts, trying to get to the United States. Some have been detained and returned there. Gutierrez is also trained in reflexology, and he offers these wanderers foot massages. He says many are embarrassed about the state of their feet, bruised, blistered, bloody with long toenails and callouses. No matter. "A migrant's feet are key to her journey," he says. "If her feet are damaged she will not get far."
The DJ dons gloves, rubs olive oil between his fingers and gets to work. He gives the migrants the gift of massage, rest for their feet and eyes, and someone to talk to. Gutierrez embodies the call to serve, even as his clients embody the pain and suffering of searching for hope.
Now, that’s a spiritual experience.
I give thanks for those who are willing to wash the feet of others – dusty disciples, wounded wanderers, and even privileged pastors. And may I use my transformed feet to walk the journey I am called to follow, even if my mission field is in the suburbs. May it be so.