Foot Washing and Physical Distance

When The Khushbu Brand first started in 2011, Ajay and Savita (both still working for Khushbu Brand today), were one of the first couples who brought this project to life. They both come from the Santali people group in Jharkhand and have been living in Delhi for several years. One of the traditions of their region is that if someone comes to your home for the first time, the host or hostess will wash your feet.  

At the start, whenever a new guest would come through the door at Khushbu, Savita would run to get the bucket and towel to wash their feet. A decent amount of people came through and got their feet washed. Although some refused, most humbly accepted this ritual. 

When you first get your feet washed in a new place, by someone you don’t know, it can be unsettling. If you are not ready for it, the act can almost feel violating. ‘Why should they be washing my feet?’ you think,‘aren’t their other gestures of hospitality?’. Or you feel embarrassed about your dirty feet; ashamed that their hands must wash your grime off. Evidently these feelings are not new. This was the experience of Jesus’s disciples 2000 years ago when he washed their feet. “You shall never wash my feet” said the disciple Peter, later giving in to Jesus’ request.  

But if you accept this act, strange and beautiful emotions can come over you. You feel both uncomfortable and deeply thankful. Both humbled and graced. If you let it, this intimate act can put a pin in your pride. Perhaps the best way to understand this gesture is as a display of sincere care and kindness. It demonstrates service and love to a guest. Washing feet is a relatively small, even trivial deed but it holds great power. I remember the first time I had my feet washed by Ajay, it had a long-lasting effect on me. I felt a deep bond with this man who was so willing to serve me. 

Fast forward to 2020. We are in the middle of a pandemic. In the same Delhi village Ajay would wash guests’ feet, police drones are making sure people do not go outside, let alone touch each other. The touch of an acquaintance, friend, or even a stranger has become a thing of the past, for now. Such times certainly put things into perspective.  

During this time, we have all had to think daily about not touching people. I feel like in any public place I am constantly physically avoiding the people I meet. I often wonder how this might make others feel. In many ways, physical distancing is just the opposite of foot washing. Physical distancing is not just non-touching, it’s being mindful of how far we are from others. Foot washing, on the other hand, is saying “I posture myself with you, serving your needs”.  

Physical distancing will probably be around for some time. In such a scenario, how important it becomes to still connect and serve people in real and meaningful ways. For a time, the foot washing bowl may get stored away, but it is up to us to find the creative ways to bridge the physical gap. 

When a good friend’s mother was suffering from late-stage cancer, other friends went over to her house and cleaned her toilets, kitchen, and living area. It was a small but kind gesture in a difficult season. They were not physically close to the person they were serving but they were serving her in real ways. Perhaps it is time for us to re-look at person-to-person intimacy and how we can form closer bonds through every sense. I believe the answer lies in practicing a foot washing mentality in everything we do. We may not be close to each other, but we can find ways to serve each other.


Contributed by Jonathan Abraham

Jonny is passionate about servant leadership. In his non-spare time, Jonny consults on leadership training with NGOs, companies and UN agencies. In his spare time, he spares time for a lovely wife and two boisterous daughters.