In Durham, North Carolina’s Walltown neighborhood, where I live, work and worship, we’re having a memorial service this afternoon for a friend of Rutba House who was unhoused for many years. Though his days were filled with trouble, Greg knew this place and was gracious in sharing its stories and wisdom with us.
Greg sits beside me in a rocking chair, changing his socks and telling stories about the neighborhood. When you’re homeless it’s important to take care of your feet. When you belong to a place, its stories are in you.
I remember the stories Darryl told me about Greg—stories about the days when Greg was a track star at Hillside High School. “He was the fastest runner I ever seen, ” Darryl said, shifting his weight on his own sore feet. He and Greg had run the streets together until Darryl got religion, sobered up, and slowed down his life. It happened too late to save Darryl from his diabetes. Gangrene got in his feet—was already in them, I believe, that day he stood in the street telling stories about Greg. The doctors ended up taking Darryl’s feet first, then his legs, before the gangrene finally took his life.
As for Greg, he’s still running. He gets up early, both to catch breakfast at the Episcopal church and to keep from getting caught on the porch where he laid down for the night. He stops to sit with me and change his socks. I don’t look at his feet, but I can smell enough to know that they’re in bad shape. A few months ago, when it was still cold at night, Leah took Greg to the hospital for detox. He stayed long enough to wrestle with the shakes and sweats that rack a body when the demons are coming out. But he never took off his boots.
I love some of the old paintings of Jesus’ ascension into heaven—the ones where the disciples look up in amazement and confusion as Jesus disappears into the clouds. Jesus’ bare feet hang out of the clouds at the center of those pictures. Whatever their feelings, the disciples’ eyes are on those feet, drawing my gaze to them as well, asking me to remember that Jesus has a body like mine and Greg’s. Shaped from the dirt we walk on, our feet are made to touch the ground. On them we stand or run.
The Bible is not so lofty as to overlook instructions about what to do with our feet. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” I still have a pair of boots I bought when I was sixteen years old to wear as I rode a motorbike through the bush of Zimbabwe, showing the Jesus film in villages that didn’t have electric lights. My feet were equipped for a life on the move, and the faith I inherited gave them plenty of reason to hit the road. But what does it take to be ready to speak peace in this place? What is the good news that Greg and I can celebrate together?
I asked Darryl in the street that day, after he had told me about the records Greg set in the hundred-yard dash. “Nobody could have told me nothing when I was out there running, ” Darryl said. “I had to get tired before I learned to rest in the Lord.” Maybe there is a grace in these bodies of ours, even in their wearing out and returning to the dust. We die to live again, stand still so we can learn to move on.
For a moment, while Greg changes his socks and I get ready to begin the day, we sit barefoot beside one another on the front porch, swapping stories. I say a prayer for grace to still us both and stretch this rest into eternity.