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Homeless find balm for their soles with foot-washing ministry

Feb. 15, 2006

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Polly Chamberlain is the founder of Bless My Sole, a foot care ministry at Centenary United Methodist Church in Richmond, Va.

By John Gordon*

RICHMOND, Va. (UMNS) — Their shoes are tattered. Their feet are blistered from countless miles of walking.

But the homeless in Richmond can rest their weary soles — and find food for their souls, as well — at Centenary United Methodist Church.

“Oh, it feels good,” said Darrick Walker as he soaked his size-15 feet in a warm bucket of water.

“Something you really need sometimes,” said Walker, an artist who lives in a Richmond shelter. “Takes your mind off your troubles for a little while.”

The Bless My Sole foot-washing ministry was started by Centenary church member Polly Chamberlain. The downtown church has traditionally opened its doors on Fridays to serve free lunches to the homeless.

Chamberlain first volunteered for kitchen duty. Then about a year ago, she decided there was something more she could offer.

“I thought this would be a really wonderful way of providing some comfort but also get to know the people. And it just took off,” she said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Homeless people line up to receive a free lunch at Centenary United Methodist Church.

The Bless My Sole treatment begins with a warm soaking, followed by lotion and a new pair of socks. Chamberlain also spends time talking about family, faith and the difficulties of life on the streets.

“I was concerned with how the clients were going to feel because it is very personal, and a lot of feet are not in very good shape because (the clients) spend so much time on their feet,” she said.

“People come in for the first time and they apologize in advance for their feet. And we say, ?There’s nothing we haven’t seen.’”

Indeed, Chamberlain and the several community volunteers who help her have seen blisters, athlete’s foot and ingrown toenails. She also recalled a man whose toes were amputated because of frostbite from sleeping outside during the winter.

“I have to be frank. There are some times when someone takes off their shoes and socks and whoosh, it’s not roses,” she said with a laugh. “But you get over that.”

Kathy Scott, who is pregnant and living in a shelter, said walking is a way of life as she tries to find a job.

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Bless My Sole volunteer Barbara Taylor massages the size-15 feet of Darrick Walker.

“It felt really good,” Scott said. “I’ve never had a foot massage, and this was a good first experience. I’ve never heard of any churches having a foot washing.”

Chamberlain said she knows of only a handful of similar ministries in the country.

Part-time church worker Tony Borst keeps buckets filled with hot water and makes sure there are plenty of supplies on hand. He knows firsthand the problems of the homeless.

Borst, who described himself as “homeless by choice,” lives in a hut made of scrap lumber and old billboard material for the outside walls.

“You’ve got people sleeping in doorways, on park benches, on benches at bus stops,” he said. “It makes me feel good to help them out.”

A sign where guests line up for the foot washing proclaims, “All feet are welcome.”

And even those who cannot walk enjoy the Bless My Sole ministry.

Gloria Anderson, who said she lives with relatives, came in a wheelchair.

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Gloria Anderson gets a foot massage from Polly Chamberlain.

“Thank you for that because you’re doing God’s work, God’s work, darling,” Anderson said as she hugged Chamberlain.

Vivian Hearn, who lives with a cousin, has become a regular at Bless My Sole.

“I’m retired, so I don’t have anything to really do right now,” she said. “So I just come down to the church, get a nice hot meal, meet people, get my feet pampered.”

Chamberlain looks forward to the weekly outreach, she said.

“Friday mornings are my favorite day of the week, and I come away from here just renewed and ready for whatever,” she said.

“And I hope that that’s the feeling that our clients have as well, that they’ve been taken care of and that somebody’s listening, somebody cares.”

Editor’s note: Polly Chamberlain has compiled a list of tips for congregations interested in starting foot-washing ministries. She can be reached at

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