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    a mural of St. Francis on the side of a building

    In the Shadow of the El

    It was the worst odor I had ever smelled, but washing a homeless man’s feet broke a spell.

    By Tim Gavin

    April 1, 2023
    • Sahara Lefevre

      beautiful message to ponder upon during this holy week. Thank you. With grateful heart, Sahara

    • Shannon

      Thank you Tim for sharing such a beautiful story. Real. May it begin with us, me, as it has with you; In Christ

    As a young man, I was involved in opening a soup kitchen in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In order to learn how to run a soup kitchen, I joined the staff of St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen run by Franciscan brothers which sits beneath the Market–Frankford elevated train line, “the El,” in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.

    Each day, hundreds of people came to the soup kitchen for their meals. They would start lining up in the shadow of the El and wait. In addition to offering meals, we would offer social services and take care of minor injuries – cuts and bruises. When young mothers came needing baby food and diapers, we gladly gave when we had the items in our pantry, and accepted their insults when we didn’t.


    St. Francis Inn serves people experiencing homelessness in Kensington, Philadelphia. Photograph by Tony Wood / Alamy Stock Photo.

    I have to admit that at the time I was very disillusioned with the church, and had entered a spiritual desert. I would pray and feel nothing – no presence of God in any part of my life. I never doubted that God existed, but I felt abandoned and isolated. In essence, I was lost in darkness.

    One Saturday in the heat of summer, I was in what we called the courtyard. It was really just an empty lot where a house had once stood, now paved and enclosed by a chain-link fence. It served as a waiting area for people coming to receive a meal. Between meals, kids would play wall ball or just hang out. Some of the homeless men would lean against the fence and smoke cigarettes and drink bottles of beer hidden in brown paper bags.

    Each day, one of the staff was assigned to the area to keep peace. This particular Saturday, I was on duty. The courtyard was empty. It was extremely hot and humid.

    I was not brought out of my spiritual desert in some grand cathedral with glorious liturgy but in a concrete courtyard outside a soup kitchen.

    The soup kitchen welcomed many regulars to our tables, and some were characters with reputations for one thing or another. This Saturday, one of them, Joe, entered the courtyard staggering, drunk, and somewhat incoherent. He demanded clean socks. I invited him to sit down on one of the folding chairs we had lined up against the wall. He slumped in the chair, complaining that his feet hurt. I went inside to find some clean socks. Brother Tom, one of the Franciscans, told me where they were.

    He asked, “Who are they for?”

    I told him, and he said, “You will need to clean his feet.” I looked at him. Actually, I gave him a dirty look.

    “You’ll need water, soap, and a towel,” he added. I retrieved everything I needed.

    By that point, I was wishing I wasn’t the one on duty. I knew Joe. He was one of the most ungrateful people we served. Whether we were feeding him, taking him to the hospital, or providing him with clothes, he always had a complaint. In addition, I had never met him when he was sober. I went out to the courtyard and the El rumbled overhead and Joe looked up and rumbled back at the El.

    “I have your socks, Joe.”

    “Who are you?” he demanded.

    “Tim,” I answered.

    “Are you one of the brothers?”

    “No. I’m a volunteer.”

    “I want one of the brothers.”

    “Sorry, Joe,” I responded sarcastically, “I am all that you have.”

    He grumbled and said, “Take off my shoes.” I removed his shoes and was hit with the worst foot odor I had ever smelled. His socks were stuck to his feet and when I took them off, the odor became even more foul. I was doing everything I could not to gag.

    “Be careful,” he snapped.

    “Your feet are a mess, Joe.”

    “No kidding. Any moron can see that,” he barked.

    His feet were cracked and bloodied. I put the towel in the bucket and wrung it out over both of his feet. The dirt and blood mingled as the water dripped off his feet.

    All of a sudden, right there in the courtyard, the gospel story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet came alive for me. I understood it intuitively. I felt a calm, as if I was being ushered from a place of upheaval to a place of serenity. Kneeling before Joe, for the first time in a long time I felt the presence of God. I couldn’t comprehend the change in my attitude toward Joe, but the frost seemed to melt. He seemed to relax.

    I washed Joe’s feet and dried them. I went back inside, found some powder and sprinkled it on his instep and between his toes. The El rattled above our heads as it passed from one stop to another. Joe quieted down as the train passed out of earshot. The courtyard was quiet and I looked at Joe as I had never looked at him before. I saw more than a belligerent drunk or a homeless man or an ungrateful person. I felt connected to him as if the image of God in him had reached out and embraced the image of God in me.

    I was brought out of the spiritual desert in the most unexpected way – not in some grand cathedral with glorious liturgy but in a concrete courtyard outside a soup kitchen beneath the Market-Frankford El. I still had issues with the church, but now I felt the warmth of God’s light, and the darkness could not overcome it. Joe, too, had been lost in his own turmoil. And here, on a Saturday morning in the heat of summer, God brings Joe and me together and invites two lost people to transcend their personal struggles to walk in his light.

    I put the clean socks on Joe’s feet. I tied his shoes. He said as clear as day, “Thank you, Tim.”

    The El rumbled overhead again and I said, “No, Joe. Thank you.”

    Contributed By TimGavin Tim Gavin

    Tim Gavin is an Episcopal priest, serving as a school chaplain at The Episcopal Academy.

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