Poverty is debilitating in many ways, not least among them its role as a literal crippler. Almost everyday at the Catholic Worker Free Clinic in Kensington, someone has a shoe problem, caused by one or a combination of common poverty-induced foot issues: frostbite, the impossibility of proper hygiene, lack of medical attention to bone and skin problems, untreated diabetes, chronic dampness and pain caused by inadequate, ill-fitting, or exhausted footwear, the list goes on. Some snapshots:
A young mother pushes a toddler in a stroller down the street. The baby has shoes, but in the bitter chill and snow, Mom is wearing socks and flip flops.
PJ, sitting patiently waiting, legs crossed, revealing shoes so full of holes that he has wrapped his feet in plastic bags before shoving them into the dilapidated brogans.
The lovely, nearly-always smiling man who, lacking a needed orthopedic lift, has such a distorted gait that he walks on the side of his shoe, not the sole.
The patient with severe foot impairments who arrives from the snowy streets wearing, inexplicably, only one shoe
Ralphy, an older man whose severe arthritis prevents him from being able to bend over and cut his own toenails. And so for several months every year he walks through life limping, waiting for Foot Doctor Day, that eagerly anticipated tri-monthly event when volunteer podiatrists come to the clinic and tend to the many needs of the down-shodden.
The late Mitch Snyder, indefatigable advocate for homeless people and member of the Committee for Creative Non Violence in DC. famously said: ” Anyone who has more than two pairs of shoes is a thief.” I remember hearing a story about how the actor Martin Sheen, who played Snyder in a 1986 film, was challenged and humbled when, upon meeting Mitch, he was asked: “How many pairs of shoes do you own.?” Sheen went home changed by the encounter, and counted his shoes.
Let’s all look in our closets and count. Thief that I am, I have 9 pairs, ample evidence of the great disparity in my circumstances and many of those who seek treatment and warmth at the free clinic. Mitch’s prescription for closing the yawning gap in resources and access to life’s necessities in this wealthy nation echoes the call to Unity found in our most cherished and professed faith traditions: “We must begin to act as if these are our brothers and sisters, our sons or daughters, our mothers or fathers, ourselves, for these they are. …You must be called upon to stop whatever you are doing, and do what must be done.”
I don’t know what this means for me or for you. But for starters, perhaps each of us could take at least a few minutes to ponder the significance of Shoes[i] both in our personal and collective lives, and then “do what must be done,” that is, respond in whatever way seems ours to do. Given the uniqueness and creative potential in each of us, I do not presume to know what resonant response might arise in anyone else. But please, think about it, and then just stop what you are doing, and do what must be done.
[i] For a beautiful, poignant film on the preciousness and significance of shoes, watch Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi’s mesmerizing movie, Children of Heaven, Bacheha-Ye aseman (1997)