Building relationships, across the ‘power lines’

By Sarah Howell, Special Contributor…

I hate footwashing services.

OK, let me qualify that. I just don’t like having my feet washed. My feet are weird-looking. I am very self-conscious about even the possibility of having body odor. In the past, I’ve intentionally volunteered to do something behind the scenes in such services so as to avoid that particular brand of discomfort. I breathed a sigh of relief when I was informed that my current church does not do footwashing on Holy Thursday.

Sarah Howell

But recently, a discussion of footwashing went to the heart of something I’ve been wrestling with in my ministry.

In the book Living Gently in a Violent World, Jean Vanier talks about experiences of having his feet washed by disabled persons in L’Arche communities. Too often when we hear about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, we assume that our call is to go and wash feet because we are called to be like Jesus. Dr. Vanier argues that a more faithful interpretation occurs when those of us in power relinquish our position and allow our feet to be washed by those whom society deems powerless. The able-bodied are not Jesus; we are not supposed to save anyone—for Dr. Vanier, the mentally handicapped and the physically disabled represent the powerlessness that God embodied in the incarnation.

In Justo González and Catherine González’s book The Liberating Pulpit, they point out that the impulse to do something can itself reinforce a power imbalance. If I can take responsibility for a situation, I can maintain control of it. Doing something for the poor or the oppressed or the maligned actually does nothing to change the root problem. They remain the recipients of assistance as the poor or the oppressed or the maligned.

Here’s where I’m going with this. In June, I was one of many United Methodists who received an email from a friend and colleague who left the UMC because his sexual orientation meant his call was not accepted there. His request was simple: “Please turn your whispered support into something substantial.”

This was someone I greatly admire, someone whose absence in the UMC because of our ordination policies makes my heart ache—and his story is one I keep hearing, one I’m tired of hearing. I had to do something.

Here’s the thing: The only reason I thought I could do something was that, as a straight person, I am in a position of power. I don’t always feel that way because of my age and my gender, but relative to my LGBTQ friends and colleagues, I am.

Of course, my friend’s email went to people in positions of relative power for a reason. I cannot excuse myself or anyone else in power from taking action. Even still, the best response is not only in what we can do, but also in who and what—and with whom—we can be.

There are those who are called to blatantly prophetic roles, and we need them to make noise, to turn over tables, to demand release for the captives. If we are called to imitate Christ, we must remember that Jesus was a rabble rouser, and we must not shrink from that call.

But Jesus was also gentle. Jesus spent a lot of time simply being with people—both those who fully bought into his message and those who did not. We talk a lot about how Jesus loved the poor, but the only time the synoptic Gospels specifically state that Jesus loved a person is in the story of the rich young ruler.

Anyone who knows me knows where I stand on inclusion. But I am called to be in ministry to all people. When I hear conservatives imply that homosexuality is equivalent to unholiness, I cannot but wonder: Do they know and love anyone who is gay? And when I hear liberals throw around words like “bigot,” I cannot but wonder: Do they know and love anyone who believes the current UMC position is right?

Power can and must be used for good, but unless it shifts, nothing will change, and unless we are in relationship across power lines, it will not shift.

What would have happened at General Conference if someone in a rainbow stole had washed a Confessing Movement member’s feet and vice versa?

I’d be happy to arrange such an event—as long as I can keep my shoes on.

That was a joke. Mostly.

Endgraf: Ms. Howell is assistant minister of worship and young adults at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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