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Church takes steps to help poor with Barefoot Sunday

Nearly 300 pairs of shoes are stacked near the altar at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in New Windsor, Md. The June 7 collection was part of Barefoot Sunday, aimed at collecting shoes for those in need. UMNS photos by Heidi Robinson.

By Heidi Robinson*
July 15, 2009 | NEW WINDSOR, Md. (UMNS)

Dawn Rosenberg and her 3-year-old daughter, Maylin, donated their shoes.

Chimes peal from the bell tower of the 166-year-old steeple at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church on a warm, summer morning.

While the call to worship may be the same as every other Sunday, the progression into the church, about an hour from the nation’s capital, is surely unusual. 

Two women in long summer dresses stroll up the walkway, but they have no summer sandals protecting their toes from the concrete. The women, like many other folks making their way to the sanctuary, are barefoot.

“In America, we throw away enough every year to put footwear on the people around the world who don’t even have one pair,” Jacque Wilhelm exclaims. “We’re excited to share today.”

Wilhelm, chairperson for Missions and Nurture Team at St. Paul’s, carries a bag of shoes, some new and some gently used. Her two little boys, Pierce and Ian, carefully clutch children’s shoes that they will give.

“It’s Barefoot Sunday!” says Pierce, sporting a homemade T-shirt decorated for the occasion with his own footprints.

This special day of worship is part of a June 7 nationwide event in partnership with Soles 4 Souls, a Nashville, Tenn.,-based organization that collects and distributes shoes to some of the 300 million people worldwide who do not have even one pair to call their own. St. Paul’s is one of several United Methodist congregations that participated.

“Most people are excited about what we are doing today, and others it makes uncomfortable, but sometimes that’s OK because it helps us too,” says Pastor Helen Armiger. She is wearing her traditional robes but is barefoot.

“I’ve been in countries where people have no choice but to go barefoot,” she says. “Children have scars on their feet; they are vulnerable to disease and infection, and we can help them.”

A tradition in some countries

As the music begins, worshippers file into the sanctuary. About half are wearing shoes, and almost all are carrying shoes to share.

Travis Perryman (left), 6, prays with his family.

“I brought two pairs of shoes to give away,” says 76-year-old Jean Fitschen.

A couple of people relish the novelty of being barefoot in church.

“I’d do this every week!” says Sunday school teacher Missy Marlin, wiggling her bare toes.

Armiger points out that in some cultures and even historically, being barefoot in church is a tradition.

“In India, people remove their shoes before they receive communion,” Armiger explains.

Before communion begins, parishioners are invited to lay their shoes before the altar.  Lines of people fill the aisles, while pumps, boots and tennis shoes begin to pile up at the front of the church.

“Here is one more pair,” says 67-year-old Joanne Hillary. “Nope, wait, I have a couple of others in here.” From the depths of her handbag she pulls another pair, adding a total of nine pairs of shoes to the stack.

“Wait, here are the pair I’m wearing,” she says. She removes the shoes from her feet and walks back to her pew in her stockings.

One shoe at a time

“It’s liberating,” Hillary says. “I don’t care if people see me walking out of church in my stocking feet. I will know that I am helping change someone else’s life today.”

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In all, almost 300 pairs of shoes will fill boxes to be given away on four continents. The congregation also collected monetary donations to defray shipping costs.

“Every kid loves being barefoot, but especially in church!” says 15-year-old Reba Wolfe. 

“I know this is better for the community and the world,” she says. “We’re helping people one shoe at a time.”

*Robinson is a freelance producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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