Foot washing stirs spirit at Oklahoma Conference

Bishop Robert Hayes Jr. washes the feet of the Rev. Ruth Atterberry, a newly ordained United Methodist elder, during a ceremony at the 2012 Oklahoma Annual Conference gathering. PHOTO BY HOLLY McCRAY

By Bill Sherman, Tulsa World…

TULSA, Okla.—Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr. removed his vestments, knelt and washed the feet of 12 people who were being ordained May 29 in the United Methodist Church.

About 1,000 delegates to the Oklahoma Annual Conference witnessed the rare foot-washing ceremony at Boston Avenue UMC.

“People were just blown away,” Bishop Hayes said the next day. “No one expected it. . . . There wasn’t a dry eye in the place, mine included.

“It was a phenomenal thing. The Spirit of the Lord was there,” he said.

The Rev. James Hunt, associate pastor at First UMC in Broken Arrow, was one of the 12 being ordained. “It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life,” he said.

“What hit me while he was doing it . . . as I was sitting there, looking at him, a man with this 100-year history of his family working in the Church, and changing the world, and his own personal integrity and leadership and courage and grace, that this is the closest I’ve ever been to that original night when the disciples were there with Jesus.”

Bishop Hayes said the foot washing is taken from the Gospel of John, Chapter 13, in which Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. In those days, he said, slaves washed the feet of their masters.

“Jesus took the form of a servant to show them that’s what life and Christianity are all about: being a servant to others. It was a symbolic act of servanthood.”

Bishop Hayes said he felt impressed months ago to do the foot washing, though he had only done it three times before in his 40 years of ministry.

He said he had no idea there would be 12 people ordained, the number of Jesus’ disciples. He washed each minister’s feet in a basin, quoting the Gospel of John: “No servant is greater than his master, and no messenger is greater than the one who sent them,” and then gave each the towel he used.

“Next to the cross, there is no greater symbol of servanthood than the knotted towel,” Bishop Hayes said. “That image just haunts me.”

The foot washing was the climax of what Bishop Hayes described as the most spiritual Annual Conference of his eight years in Oklahoma.

“We had no controversies,” he said. “We were into a more spiritual, missional, wholeness frame of mind.”

Delegates gave Bishop Hayes an enthusiastic endorsement and passed a unanimous resolution urging that he be re-appointed for another four-year term. The announcement of his next assignment will be made in July at the South Central Jurisdictional Conference, to be held in Oklahoma City.

Reprinted with permission from Tulsa World.

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