by Elaine Maust
MCC Washington Memo, May/June 2003
Twenty years ago, our little family moved to Meridian, Mississippi. We numbered two young adults and a baby, with another baby on the way. Though we had met most of Meridian’s Mennonites, they did not know us well.
But that did not stop the onslaught of kindness that they poured on us. There were hot homemade muffins to celebrate our first morning in our new home. Our new friends collected pickup loads of trash from the yard. One woman spent a morning bending over our filthy bathtub, scrubbing it back to its native pink.
I was overwhelmed. These people hardly knew us. We had not decided where we would go to church. Why were they doing all of this?
I discovered, as we became part of this little church, that acts of kindness were part of the culture of Jubilee Mennonite. Through the past twenty years people helped us raise our children, encouraged our gifts, and challenged us to grow. When we struggled financially, they wrote checks that helped us survive difficult years on the farm.
Though Duane and I had both grown up in churches that enjoyed the ancient practice of foot washing, this ritual took on fresh meaning at Jubilee. Our former pastor helped the congregation connect washing feet with other acts of kindness and hospitality. He suggested that perhaps a contemporary foot washing service would include washing each others’ toilets.
And so, in addition to pouring water on a sister’s feet, we cleaned her car. Along with rubbing a brother’s feet with a towel, we shelled his purple hull peas. These acts of service also became known as foot washing.
In the 25 years since it began, Jubilee reshaped as she grew. Today most of the congregation of about 70 did not grow up in a Mennonite church. For many the idea of literally washing feet is new and most strange. On Maundy Thursday each year, Jubilee continues the practice of the basin and the towel. Everyone in the congregation is invited to the service to participate or observe. The rest of the year, acts of family kindness continue.
Though the congregation has changed through the years, the culture of hospitality has not. When someone in the church has a critically sick child, the rest of the congregation is there, with prayers, words of encouragement, and a casserole. When a member who is not a citizen struggles with documentation issues, Jubilee welcomes by providing a dozen trips to the lawyer in New Orleans, a journey to the immigration office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and thousands of dollars to pay for the effort. When a family new to the church has a third baby, there are bags of hand-me-down clothes, pots of spaghetti, and plates of cupcakes and a party to celebrate.
And so we continue to wash each other’s feet, the supreme act of hospitality. And sometimes it happens on Tuesday morning while we are going about regular life.